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Sackler Trust: Donations

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 27 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the wider implications of the decisions by the National Portrait Gallery and Tate to forgo the intended donations from the Sackler Trust.

My Lords, the DCMS-sponsored museums operate independently, at arm’s length from government. Therefore, decisions on philanthropic giving and other donations are a matter for the trustees of the respective institutions. Individual sponsored museums and galleries operate their own procedures relating to propriety and ethics, fundraising and charitable objectives.

My Lords, first, looking forward, does the Minister not recognise that there needs to be some manner of formal public vetting of donors to our national museums and other institutions in the light of growing public awareness about where the money comes from, particularly with regard to sizeable donations? Secondly, does he not feel that it is high time that government reaffirmed a commitment to the proper public funding of our museums, so that private donations are the icing on the cake rather than something on which museums are now clearly over- dependent?

My Lords, with regard to the second question, the Government do support museums. Public funding amounts to about a third of all museum funding, and that is very important. One of the strengths of the museum and gallery sector in this country is that it has a diversified funding stream. The Mendoza review found that the amount of public funding that museums and galleries received over a 10-year period was roughly consonant. I do not think that public vetting of donors is a good idea. I do not think that the Government should be involved in assessing the rightness or wrongness of donors and whether they are suitable. It is very important that public institutions have their own trustees who look at these things, and many of them—the large ones, especially—have ethics committees to do just that.

My Lords, although due diligence is indeed necessary, does the Minister agree that deep gratitude is owed to the philanthropists who support our cultural institutions? Does he also agree that, if fastidiousness is pursued to the ultimate, many of our cultural organisations will not be able to do the very valuable work that they do? Does he agree that, if the noble Earl’s severe audit had been applied to the Medici, the Renaissance would not have occurred?

I do not think that that was the only reason for the Renaissance, but I take the noble Lord’s point. It is worth putting on record that this country has been extremely well served by philanthropists, including with respect to our great museums. I remind noble Lords that a quarter of the most visited museums in the world are in this country—and four of the top 10—at least partially because of the philanthropic gifts that the noble Lord mentioned. I am happy to put that on record.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that it is easier for national museums to attract these large philanthropic donors than for local and regional museums? We are well aware now that a number of local and regional museums endowed 150 or 200 years ago are now in severe difficulties as a result of cuts in government funding to local authorities. Is the DCMS actively concerned about the plight of some of our town and city museums around the country?

As I have said a couple of times in the last two or three weeks, the museum sector is not affected by local authority cuts, to the extent that museums have found other methods of funding themselves. I think we should nail this one. The Mendoza report said that the funding for museums across the whole sector had been broadly flat. I take the noble Lord’s point that it is easier for a large national portfolio organisation to attract large philanthropic donations. That is not surprising, but it is exactly why Arts Council England, which we support, has made a big effort to spread its funding outside London. Last year, 70% of Arts Council England funding was awarded outside London.

Does my noble friend the Minister know of any plans to review the Nobel Peace Prize, which as we all know is financed by the sale of munitions and explosives?

As my noble friend knows, DCMS’s portfolio has grown dramatically in the last three years—but it does not yet include the Noble Peace Prize.

My Lords, the drug for which the Sackler family have, quite rightly, been pursued has created enormous damage in America and elsewhere. On the face of it, they knew all about what they were doing, which is a great tragedy. But I am not quite clear—perhaps the Minister can enlighten us—whether it has been proven beyond doubt in a court of law that they did know what they were doing. The family themselves are denying it.

My Lords, I believe that they have made an out-of-court settlement in one state in the US but that the case continues in many other states. It would not be appropriate for me to talk about a legal case that is ongoing.