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Nicholas Penny, a former director of London’s National Gallery, has resigned in protest from Arts Council England’s Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) panel. He believes that recent changes being introduced by the Arts Council “will seriously impair the panel’s efficiency and efficacy”.

Coming from a former director of a government-funded national museum, his outspoken comments carry considerable weight. Penny served as the director of the National Gallery from 2008 to 2015 and before that was the senior curator of sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. He has been a member of the AIL panel for nine years.

The issue that brought matters to a head was the recent departure of the Arts Council’s senior policy adviser on cultural property, Anastasia Tennant. Although she nominally left voluntarily, Penny believes that she was in effect forced out after 12 years of service.

Penny regards Tennant’s departure as “catastrophic”. He says: “She knows the auction houses, the curators, the dealers and many of the owners [of art] far better than anyone else in the Arts Council. Her knowledge of the intricacies of tax and heritage law is unmatched. It has been her expertise, her connections and her experience that have made things work.”

Under the UK’s AIL system, people liable for inheritance tax can in specified circumstances cover this liability with giving art or heritage property, providing they are of “pre-eminent” importance or associated with a historic building. The items are then allocated to an appropriate museum or a body such as the National Trust, keeping them in the UK and allowing public access.

In 2023 the panel recommended the acquisition of 48 offers, valued at a total of £52.9m. These included Rembrandt’s drawing A Baby Sleeping in a Cradle (around 1645, for the British Museum) and Claude Monet’s L’Epte à Giverny (1884, for the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). The AIL panel, with 15 members, comprises curators, academics, dealers and other specialists in the visual arts and heritage. Along with Penny, five other members apparently share his concerns. He notes that the panel was not consulted over Tennant’s departure.

Edward Harley, the panel’s chair, retired in March 2023 and was replaced by Michael Clarke, a former director of the National Gallery of Scotland. Within months of his appointment, Clarke found himself having to deal with the impact of Tennant’s departure. In the AIL’s latest annual report, he writes that her “departure will be keenly felt”.

Following his resignation, Penny wrote to three of his most important museum director colleagues, saying that Tennant’s “removal from office is an act blatantly against the public interest, engineered by an organisation [the Arts Council] which includes no one of comparable qualifications [for her role]”. He believes she is irreplaceable.

Along with the issue of Tennant’s departure, Penny is also concerned about what he sees as an ideologically based Arts Council programme, now underway under the banner of “equity, diversity and inclusivity”. He believes that what began as a commendable concern to encourage the disadvantaged has moved to a rigid insistence on quotas and enforcing doctrinaire orthodoxy.

Penny says that the AIL system should now be removed from administration by the Arts Council and made an independent body reporting directly to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. He has made this view clear to Nicholas Serota, the Arts Council chair and a former director of the UK’s other main art museum, Tate (1988-2017).

Meanwhile, Tennant has set up as an independent consultant, working with her Arts Council predecessor Gerry McQuillan. Among the members of the Tennant McQuillan Advisory Services board is Harley, until last year the AIL chair, which indicates that she still retains his full support. Tennant is not commenting on her departure.

An Arts Council spokesperson tells The Art Newspaper: “As a public body we are currently subject to pre-election period of sensitivity guidelines, which limit our external communications.”

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