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Mr Brown, meet Mr Dalton.

This year the UK's National Heritage Memorial Fund is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. Among the events marking it are exhibitions at the National Galleries in Edinburgh and London, the British Library and the British Museum, presenting some of the works of art that the NHMF has helped them to acquire. The occasion has been an opportunity for the Fund to emphasise its distinctive role, as a fund of last resort for the acquisition of what are unappealingly known as 'heritage assets' and as the national memorial for all those who have lost their lives in the service of the country. Both points were stressed by the Fund's chair, Liz Forgan, in a speech last month at the opening of the British Museum's display on the NHMF (her text can be read on the Fund's new website, www.nhmf.org.uk).

Maintaining its distinctiveness has been a problem for the NHMF ever since the cuckoo's egg of the Heritage Lottery Fund was laid in its nest by the government in 1994. Before that, the NHMF was a small organisation, distributing an annual grant from the government. The decision that the heritage tranche from the new national lottery would be distributed by the NHMF radically changed the organisation's character: in 1994 the Fund's grant-in-aid was 12 million [pounds sterling], but in its first full year the Heritage Lottery Fund had 306 million [pounds sterling] to give away. Partly because both funds have 'heritage' in their name and are administered by the same organisation, with the same chair of trustees and staff, most people believed from the outset that they performed identical roles. As a result, for a time, it seemed unlikely that the NHMF would survive, despite the fact that the government had promised that lottery funds would not replace government spending. However, the NHMF successfully argued that it had a special role as a fund that could be employed at speed, as a last resort. For museums and art galleries that has been crucial, for the NHMF accepts that its core purpose is to fund acquisitions, something it has done with great elan, from the purchase with its aid of Poussin's The Triumph of Pan by the National Gallery, London, in 1982 to this year's coup of the Fitzwilliam Museum's acquisition of the Macclesfield Psalter.

It can be argued, of course, that the HLF has occasionally supplanted the NHMF in this role, since it too can fund acquisitions, and has occasionally done so to spectacular effect, never more so than when the National Gallery, London, bought The Madonna of the Pinks last year. There are two important points about this. Firstly, it is an issue of funding. The acceleration in the value of the very finest works of art has left the NHMF struggling to meet its obligations, thanks to the way its income has been cut by the government: its annual grant had been reduced to from 12 million [pounds sterling] to 2 million [pounds sterling] by 1998. This has forced the HLF to do the NHMF'S work. Although the grant is now 5 million [pounds sterling] and will be raised to 7 million [pounds sterling] in 2007, the reduction in funding since 1994 is a disgrace. The NHMF has confronted this in part by stressing its commemorative role: for example, this year, exceptionally, it made a grant to the memorial in Whitehall for the women who fought in World War II. The NHMF has its origins in the Land Fund set up by the Labour government in 1946 to buy land for the public benefit, to form, in the words of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, 'a thank-offering for victory, and a war-memorial'. As Liz Forgan wrily commented, the NHMF can trace its purpose back to 'an idealist, social framework that the left in particular sometimes need reminding of today'.

More subtly, the NHMF'S distinctiveness depends also on its comparative independence from the present government's agenda of using the arts and heritage as tools of social engineering. A 1998 policy guidance by the government binds the HLF when making awards to take into account the reduction of social and economic deprivation, the need to promote access to the heritage by people from all sections of society, the promotion of interest in the heritage by children and young people and the encouragement of sustainable development. The NHMF has fewer restrictions: it can make its awards on the basis simply of the quality of the asset under threat. It is a great tribute to Liz Forgan and her trustees that they have insisted on this core value while still managing to argue the NHMF'S case successfully to an often unsympathetic government.

That alone will not solve the central problem of inadequate funding, and the NHMF is right to have made an appeal for more support for acquisitions from private benefactors a key part of its anniversary message. Yet that is unlikely to happen without a government policy for making such contributions more appealing in fiscal terms. We are still waiting, after more than a year, for a response from the Treasury on the Goodison Report, which deals with that very subject. Will somebody please give the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, a biography of Hugh Dalton for Christmas?
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Title Annotation:Gordon Brown; Hugh Dalton
Author:Hall, Michael
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:882
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