Here in London a stunned silence greeted the surprise news that Charles Saatchi was to ‘donate’ his recently opened Saatchi Gallery and part of his collection to the British nation, perhaps as soon as 2012. The surprise came, not only because Saatchi doesn’t seem like the retiring type – he can still be seen feverishly buying up graduate and degree shows – but mainly because no one knew it was about to happen. Not even the newly installed government had been prepped, with the Culture Minister blurting out something about philanthropy “being central to our vision of a thriving cultural sector and this is an outstanding example of how Britain can benefit from individual acts of social responsibility.”
As well as the headline figures of the 200 works being donated (including Tracey Emin’s notorious bed and various bits by the Chapmans and so on), valued at around £25 million, there was no little devil in the detail. None of the running costs will be passed to the state, which makes a change from those country piles that get left to crumble without National Heritage status, and the gift is not in lieu of taxes, said the small print. So what is this donation really about, if Saatchi is not going to retire anytime soon, as a gallery spokesperson revealed (although he will be past pensionable age, turning 70 in 2012)?
Well, despite grumbles that Saatchi’s collection isn’t comprehensive or coherent (there is no film or video admittedly), this is a fantastic offer for London (it’s free!). But the decision to change its name to the Museum of Contemporary Art London does present a problem for the current holder of nominal MoCA status, namely Tate Modern. And there is some history here. Nicholas Serota was rumoured to have refused a donation of Saatchi’s YBA holdings, so perhaps bad blood remains. Either way, should a collector be allowed to impose his taste on a nation in this way, leaving a marker of his personal choices for posterity to validate it as part of a millennial canon? Shouldn’t our nation’s keepers decide what flows into this cache? Or is this what has always happened with bequests to the nation and this is just another mausoleum by another name?