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Making up for the government's failures: Interview with Lord Sainsbury

Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover has provided crucial support for many of Britain’s greatest art institutions

Last month Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover stepped down as chairman of the trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery. In his six years at Dulwich Lord Sainsbury has led the museum to independence and financial stability. He presided over the raising of over £12 million for an endowment, and a further £9 million for redevelopment and refurbishment of the gallery.

Lord Sainsbury was asked to be chairman when it was agreed that the gallery was threatened with closure unless responsibility was transferred from the Governors of Dulwich College to a new body.

A businessman with a passion for the arts, Lord Sainsbury has devoted much of his time to the institutions he cares about. While chairman of his family supermarket chain from 1969 to 1992, the positions he held include trustee of the National Gallery (1976-83), trustee of the Tate Gallery (1982-83), director of the Royal Opera House (1969-85) and then chairman (1987-91).

The donations to cultural institutions he has made through his Linbury Trust include a £35 million gift with his two brothers to the National Gallery in 1991 that saved the site adjacent to the museum from commercial development and led to the creation of the Sainsbury Wing which houses early Renaissance paintings. With Vivien Duffield he led the Royal Opera House Appeal to which he made a major donation, and most recently Lord Sainsbury provided funding for new galleries for temporary exhibitions at Tate Britain which will increase display space at the museum by 15% when they open next year.

The Art Newspaper spoke to Lord Sainsbury about his success at Dulwich and the role of the government in the funding of museums.

Could the restructuring of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, with its decision to become an independent museum with a board of trustees, serve as a model for the chronically underfunded regional museums of Britain?

You could not expect the governors of Dulwich College who used to be responsible for Dulwich Picture Gallery to give its needs top priority, so the establishment of an autonomous constitution for the art gallery and the devolution to a board of trustees was crucial. It meant that you had trustees with the single-minded purpose of the good of the gallery and this led to creating an endowment and then securing funding for the gallery’s refurbishment and development.

We knew we had to work hard to raise money. Having no government funds, we were not going to achieve what we wanted unless we were able to persuade sponsors and lottery authorities that we deserved their money because we were doing something that was desperately necessary and worthwhile.

This system of devolution would be advantageous in many circumstances. An example is the V&A museum in London which has responsibility for the Theatre Museum. How can the trustees of an organisation as large and as important as the V&A give very much time, priority, or money to the Theatre Museum?

You cannot expect a regional art institution to be able to raise funds if it is run by the council. If one could imagine independent, regional art galleries managed as the Dulwich Picture Gallery has been, by an independent board which could, of course, include civic representation, and led by a strong, independent chairman, they would be very much more effective in raising funds from local business and local citizens as well as getting a grant from their city. They would also be able to cultivate local civic pride which would increase visitor numbers. And frankly they would be able to manage the gallery more effectively than any local politician.

Central government should be responsible for seeing that regional museums are properly funded as well as properly endowed. I have long thought that a proportion of lottery funding should be allowed for revenue purposes as long as the principles of additionality were maintained. So lottery funds could be used to help. Furthermore, the government could require councils to spend a certain proportion of the funding they receive on the arts.

How do you feel about the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport’s announcement that it is to review the management arrangements of some of the institutions it funds? Unofficially we have heard that the boards of trustees, with their powerful, able, and rich members, are considered undemocratic (The Art Newspaper, No. 106, September 2000, p.16).

To enter an era when we know we are going to need more and more private money and corporate sponsorship for the arts, and to say that boards have got to be politically correct by being democratic is ludicrous. You will never achieve good management by attempting to impose “so-called” political democracy on the trustee system.

This is another example of politicians meddling in the arts. I strongly believe in the old-fashioned idea of “arms-length”, keeping government out of the arts. The purpose of the Arts Council is not to be a political arm of government. A well-directed Arts Council could be a much better judge of what is in the public interest from a cultural point of view than a not very well-informed Tory or Labour politician who is landed with the job of Arts Minister.

Of course, if public money is involved, then politicians have a responsibility to ensure the quality, integrity, and competence of the bodies to which that money goes, but in recent years government has got much more involved than that.

I have served on the boards of trustees of the National Gallery, the Tate, and the Directors of the Royal Opera House, and in all cases, during my time, these boards understood the needs of the institutions far better than any minister of the day ever did, which is hardly surprising when you look at the high calibre of so many of my colleagues.

Boards are valuable when they include people with a cross-section of ability and background: professionals in the field, academics, businessmen, education specialists. However, they must care and be well-informed about the art form concerned and recognise their responsibilities to the public. And if some of the trustees are particularly helpful in being generous themselves, this, of course, encourages generosity in others.

Of course boards can go wrong and it is true that sometimes art institutions have been ill led and that their boards have failed in their responsibility, but this risk exists in any system.

What prompted you and your brothers to fund the building of the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery?

The National Gallery is one of the best collections of Western art in the world and yet a succession of governments after the war failed to understand this great institution’s needs.

If they had known or cared sufficiently for the National Gallery, they would have seen visitor attendance rising and they would have recognised a desperate need for more display space. And there was a car-park bomb-site adjacent to the gallery which remained empty for forty years!

Eventually the government did devise a plan that would have provided a gallery at no cost to the Treasury by situating an office underneath. That plan was just not good enough. It tried to do the impossible; thank God it failed.

It was a feeling of frustration and shame that our nation could not do what it was so manifestly obvious it should have done for the National Gallery that prompted my brothers and myself to intervene, but we should not have had to.

The state of mind in those days was that if the government did not do something, nobody else could. I remember the first time I visited the National Gallery as a trustee with Michael Levey [then director]. One small gallery was suffering from a failure in the lighting (I think the light bulb needed changing). I said to Michael, “What has happened here?” He said, “We reported this to the department weeks ago and they still have not done anything.” This is an extreme example of the “Whitehall can sort it out for us” mentality. Whitehall cannot and never should have been expected to. The bottom line, sadly, is that neither Whitehall nor Westminster can be relied on for the arts.

What is missing from New Labour’s cultural policy?

The root of all our problems is that every single government since the war has been relatively uninterested in the arts. Both the last Conservative government and the current Labour government have the arts low on their priority list; they simply do not care enough, whatever they may say. This is a great national weakness. It was, however, good news to hear of the government’s intention to increase funding for the Arts Council in the years ahead, an important step in the right direction.

Perhaps politicians in the past had more interest in the arts because they did not have to be career politicians. Before the war my father stood as a Liberal candidate. When he was challenged as to how he could run a business and be a member of parliament he replied that the amount of time needed to be an MP would still allow him to do a day’s work for his business most days of the week! If that was still true today, you might have politicians with more time for art galleries and theatres.

The one political leader to whom we should be thankful is John Major because it was his government that established the lottery and that has done more for the arts in a short time than any action by any government.

Are you optimistic about the future of the arts in Britain?

I am optimistic for the future because the public is showing ever greater interest in the arts.

In the short term, however, it is difficult to be optimistic about a government that uses the word elite as a term of abuse. I believe that national pride should be expressed in the quality of our great art institutions. If you are going to seek excellence by international standards then by definition that can be said to be elitist.

All this noise the government is making about access, as if it were a new idea! What the hell have art gallery or opera house directors been doing up until now? Of course they have been trying to widen their appeal, and what is more they have been succeeding. Over the long term, visitor attendance to museums has been rising and this success has been achieved through the present board system.

One only needs to look at the new Tate Modern in London. The board of trustees and director and staff have been so much more successful in understanding the public and attracting them to this new museum than the government and their politically dominated Millennium Dome.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

What I am most proud of is that I led the family business to be as successful as it was. If I had failed in doing that then the Linbury Trust would not have had the money to give away, the Sainsbury Wing would not exist, and the Royal Opera House and other projects I supported would not have had my help. The company’s success made it possible for me to support some of the causes that I care a great deal about and not only in the arts.

Originally published in The Art Newspaper as "Doing what government fails to do"