A Nonprofit Art Fund Helped the U.K.’s Public Collections Acquire 900 Artworks in 2022

The organization awarded a £2.5 million grant to help London’s National Portrait Gallery purchase Sir Joshua Reynolds’s ‘Portrait of Mai.’ 

Joshua Reynolds's Portrait of Omai on the move at Tate Britain. Photo: Matthew Fearn - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images.

More than 900 works of art and other objects entered public collections in the U.K. last year thanks to Art Fund, the non-profit dedicated to supporting galleries and museums in the country. 

That was the major takeaway from the organization’s annual report for the 2022–23 fiscal year, published this week. During that time, the organization doled £8.4 million ($10.6 million) in grants, £4.5 million ($5.7 million) of which went towards acquisitions. 

Those figures mark a return to pre-pandemic benchmarks for the 120-year-old charity. In 2019, for instance, the organization gave a comparable £4.7 million ($6 million) for the acquisition of some 970 works. 

“It has been heartening to hear from our 850+ museum and gallery partners that green shoots of optimism are emerging after a difficult few years,” said Jenny Waldman, Art Fund’s director, in a statement. “As our brilliant museum colleagues navigate their recovery from the pandemic, with the added burden of the cost-of-living crisis, our support is needed as much as ever.”

Notably, more than half of last year’s £4.5 million acquisition grant budget was spent on one work of art: Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Mai (1776). The historic painting, which depicts a young Tahitian man who sailed from his home country to England in 1774 with the British explorer James Cook, was jointly acquired this March by London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum, marking the first time that art institutions in the U.K. and U.S. have partnered on a single purchase. 

The two museums each paid roughly half the artwork’s estimated £50 million ($62 million) price tag. Art Fund stepped up with a £2.5 million ($3 million) grant—the largest in its history—for the NPG to help bring the joint effort over the finish the line.  

Portrait of Mai is set to go on display for the first time in 18 years at the newly renovated NPG starting tomorrow, June 22. 

Other noteworthy pieces that Art Fund’s grants helped institutions acquire include Joseph Wright of Derby’s Self-Portrait at the Age of About Forty (c. 1772-73), which was purchased by the Derby Museum and Art Gallery; Jananne Al-Ani’s Timelines (2022), picked up by the Victoria and Albert Museum; and Array Collective’s The Druthaib’s Ball (2021), bought by the Ulster Museum. The latter work was featured in the group’s Turner Prize-winning exhibition in 2021.  

“We are delighted that Art Fund has been able to support museums and advocate for the further significant investment they need,” Waldman added. 

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