Magazine article The Spectator

Keeper of the Treasure

Magazine article The Spectator

Keeper of the Treasure

Article excerpt

Mary Wakefield meets Stephen Deuchar, who plans to save the Staffordshire Hoard

It's lovely here in the Art Fund director's office, both elegant and cosy.

Windows sweep from floor to ceiling, an Iznik bowl on a low table reflects the glow from a gas fire. But, even so, Stephen Deuchar doesn't seem quite settled. It's the way he moves warily across the room; turns to stare at his computer when it makes a noise.

Do you feel at home here yet? I ask. 'No, not yet. But, actually, being uncomfortable isn't a bad thing.' Deuchar sits down on a sofa opposite me and grins. 'I know from having spent 11 years in my last job [he was founding director of Tate Britain] that it's much easier to see things clearly when you're uncomfortable and new.'

So what does Dr Deuchar see? Well, the Art Fund is a curious place. Walking into its HQ is like falling down Lewis Carroll's rabbit hole: every tiny room bustles with arty business; a lady with emerald eyeshadow, orange nails and big, bright magenta hair presides over reception. It's a curious concept, too: a charity which uses private cash to save art for the public.

'Amazing, isn't it?' says Deuchar. 'Since 1903, we've helped to save over 860,000 works of art. I met a minister in Moscow last year who was so surprised by the idea he almost refused to believe in it. He kept saying, "A private institution that gives away money to museums and galleries? Is it possible? If only we had one in Russia!" ' So what's there for a new director to do? Well, though the Art Fund is above reproach, it may still be in need of gentle reorientation. Deuchar doesn't mention it, but his predecessor, charming David Barrie, now CBE, is said to have focused more on the distinguished membership than on the museums and galleries, which put some curators' noses out of joint. Last spring, the Fitzwilliam turned down £80,000 so as not to have to display the Art Fund logo: rather skint than naff, it said.

Are you planning a new direction for the fund? I ask Deuchar cautiously. 'My own instinct is to return to the core principles, in providing a service for others, ' he says. 'It sounds corny, but it's true. There is a danger with charities that they sometimes think they are the main event. I want to listen to what the galleries and museum curators have to say.'

Shouldn't you dictate to them as well?

Shouldn't you tell them which art to save for qfuture generations? Do museums necessarily know what's good for them?

'I prefer the clarity of acting in support of others.' Deuchar is friendly but firm. 'My job is to help museums do what they want to be done.' Music to a curator's ears! But Deuchar isn't just a diplomat - he is, by all accounts, a determined character, too, and quite different from the usual art-establishment type. He's wiry, not louche, dressed in black, no tweed in sight; there's his famous moustache (now more of an actual beard, I'd say) and the fact that he was, in his heyday, a go-kart champ. I've researched this claim online and can verify that, though the karting community don't seem very bothered by Deuchar's success in saving Turner's 'The Blue Rigi' for Tate Britain in 2007, they think he drives like a demon.

'After a break of some 27 years, Stephen resumed his career with Club 100, ' says the biography on his racing site. 'When karting commitments allow, Stephen has a career in the art world. …

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