The British Museum’s Picasso gift: a change in philanthropy in the UK?

By Cressida Smart

Christmas came early for Stephen Coppel, prints and drawings curator of the British Museum, when his department received a complete collection of Picasso etchings. The donation allowed the British Museum to become one of only a handful of institutions in the world, and the only one in the UK, to own a set made by the artist between 1930 and 1937, known as the Vollard suite.

Hamish Parker, a director of Mondrian Investment Partners, donated £1 million last month to the museum to acquire the prints, following a donation by the Hamish Parker Charitable Trust; the donation was made in memory of his father, Major Horace Parker. The generous donor is a regular attendee at events in the British Museum’s prints and drawings department. In October 2010, the museum exhibited one of the seven Picasso etchings it then owned from the Vollard suite. On one of the labels, Coppel wrote of his ambition to own the complete suite. Little did he know that he would receive an email in April this year from Parker, outlining his plans.

The drawings represent a visual diary of Picasso’s thoughts, ideas and preoccupations through the 1930s. Almost half express the artist’s engagement with classical sculpture and many feature his muse and lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he first spotted on the streets of Paris when she was 17 and he was 45. The etchings also feature Picasso’s first use of a Minotaur, a motif he used throughout his career. Created between 1930 and 1937, Picasso’s “classical phase” the etchings reveal the artist’s obsession with the myth of the Minotaur and trace a link between the artist and what he called “the untamable beast”.

The suite of drawing is named after one of the century’s most successful dealers, Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned Picasso to produce the etchings. 313 sets of the 100-strong series exist, but only a handful of them have not been broken up. Vollard helped launch Picasso’s career when he bought most of Picasso’s ‘Rose’ period paintings in 1906. He was a friend and patron to many of the great artists of the period.

Following Vollard’s death in a car crash in 1939, the dealer Henri Petiet bought most of the sets from the Vollard estate. Complete sets exist at institutions in the US, including in Washington and New York, the Musée Picasso in Paris, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and a small number of private collections – but the British Museum becomes the first UK public body to own a set. However, this particular group is said to be one of the very best impressions and has not been shown before; the full series will go on show at the British Museum for the first time next summer.

Hamish Parker’s philanthropic display reignites the debate about “US style” philanthropy and implementing it in the UK.  There is a widely held belief that that will only be possible if the UK adopts a “US style” incentive system tax. In both countries, basic philanthropic institutions—trusts and foundations, charity law, membership and subscription mechanisms have grown from the same English roots and yet how and why they practice giving is in many ways quite different. While both systems share a core philosophy – if you give money or an asset to a charity then you shouldn’t have to pay tax on it – the UK’s attitude continues to lag behind. In the US, individual giving as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product has consistently hovered around 2%. By contrast, charitable giving in the United Kingdom has yet to reach 1% of GDP.

Stateside, giving is considered a positive and robust term and it is employed widely by both the left and the right. While giving to opposing causes, both ends of the political spectrum wholeheartedly support the value and importance of philanthropy. In the UK, however, philanthropy has not been popular and is often seen as elitist, patronising, morally judgmental and ineffective, as well as old fashioned and out of date.

In the last month, the UK moved a step closer to embracing the US-style tax breaks when the Treasury announced a proposal of tax relief on donations of pre-eminent art – but only on gifts to the state rather than direct to museums or galleries. The new rules will grant up to 25% relief on income tax or capital gains tax to donors who give away major works of art or historical objects to the nation, so an individual donating an object valued at £100,000 would have £25,000 knocked off their tax bill. Companies that donate will be eligible for a reduction in corporation tax. The total value of tax reductions in this scheme, combined with the existing ‘acceptance-in-lieu’ scheme, which allows inheritance tax to be paid using works of art, will be £30m a year. The ‘acceptance-in-lieu’ scheme, introduced a century ago, has been used to secure works such as John Constable’s “Stratford Mill” and Pablo Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” for the nation.

While the move has been widely welcomed, there are doubts as to whether the rise would be enough to encourage donors as there are further issues to consider. This includes the proposed 25% limit on the amount of tax relief available and the proposal that works of art should be donated to the state and then loaned to museums and galleries, rather than being given directly; people enjoy giving to particular institutions to which they have a local or historical connection.

In an age when philanthropy seems on the decline, a gift like the one received by the British Museum raises hope that the British public can still give. Since funding to the arts has been cut, never has the need for philanthropy been more in demand. The recent tax breaks are to be greatly welcomed. However, more still needs to be done to change the British attitude to giving and make it an integral part of our culture.

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