There has been some discussion recently about the very high prices being made at auction at the moment for New Zealand works. It raises the question of what works are in the public domain in general and which works are in private hands and in effect disappear from public view. In case this is considered a recent problem, let’s cast our minds back to the good old days when art was the preserve of the aristocracy and it was not only art that was collected. Wonderful furniture was created for the very rich. They were able to commission tapestries for their walls and sculptures for their gardens. The only others who saw these taonga were the aristocrats who came for dinner and stayed the night (or many nights) and a few servants who did not work below stairs.
In republican Netherlands in the 17th century Rembrandt painted oils for the wealthy and produced cheaper etchings for the artisans to buy. All these works also disappeared into private houses. Then a century or two ago, the very rich merchants and industrialists bought up the finest art. Mr Frick had his collection on the walls of his 5th Avenue mansion and again his friends and servants got to see the art but no-one else did.
Public galleries which allow public access to viewing art works are quite recent; a couple of hundred years old at best. Wealthy collectors then could gift their works to public galleries where anyone might see them. Galleries began to buy works themselves and donations were sought to allow for more purchases. Friends of galleries raised money for this purpose. These collections grew until there were many more works than could hang on the walls of the galleries. In many cases, the majority of the works owned by a gallery were placed in storage hidden from public view and brought out from time to time. The National Gallery in London holds 2,300 works; not all of them are hung at once. Te Papa is also not able to hang all its art work.
So we as Friends are fortunate to be able to see behind the scenes, as in our sold out tour of the work of Douglas McDiarmid, with Lizzie Bisley, curator of modern art. Some of his work hangs in people’s homes, but some of it is in the public domain.