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Keeper of the treasure

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

20 January 2010

12:00 AM

20 January 2010

12:00 AM

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 future 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.’ There are also, take note Art Fund colleagues, some nice pictures of Stephen in his biking leathers.

Is this relevant? Well, yes, in a way. Deuchar can seem pacific, academic, but his go-kart skills are the key to understanding his success in the art world. Take his commitment to ‘new art history’. ‘My PhD was done in the early Eighties when the social history of art was just emerging,’ he says. ‘It was an exciting battle between the young radicals and the traditional museum curators.’ But the battle didn’t end at uni. When Deuchar took over Tate Britain, he brought his ‘new art history’ to SW1, and all manner of snootiness ensued. Eleven years later, even his most excitable critics have long since piped down. Hogarth, Holbein, Peter Doig, Turner and the Masters: it’s difficult to dispute Deuchar’s talent.

So what will he focus on next? I read recently that you support tax breaks for art donors, I say. ‘Yes…’ Deuchar looks cautious. ‘I wasn’t as strident as I was portrayed in the press, but I do think it’s important. I was talking recently to an American collector who lives in London. She’s just given a work to MOMA and she was saying how very easy the whole process was. She said, “If the British Museum could offer me that sort of clarity and ease, I’d give to them in a flash!” And when you think of all the art hanging by a thread, which might go abroad.’

Have you spoken to politicians about it? Have you sounded out the Tories, or are they too scared of seeming to favour the rich? ‘We’re not ready to launch a campaign yet, but there are positive signs.’ Deuchar gives an enigmatic smile.

But the first test of the new director’s skills won’t be the tax-break battle — it’ll be the fight to save the Staffordshire Hoard. Deuchar has landed at the Art Fund at the perfect time for a ‘new art historian’ — just in time to take on the task of raising the £3.3 million needed to buy the great 7th-century treasure trove dug up six months ago by a metal detectorist.

‘I’m still trying to comprehend the scale of it,’ says Deuchar. ‘It’s going to redefine our idea of history. Each individual item is a mystery that archaeologists and historians will work on for years — and there are about 1,600 different items. I can’t tell you how important it is.’ Important, and exciting, too. It’s proper booty, what David Starkey calls ‘gangland bling’: five and a half kilos of gold sword hilts, rings, bracelets and daggers, probably looted, then hidden. That’s five times more gold than Sutton Hoo.

And you’re determined that the Staffordshire Hoard should stay in the West Midlands? I ask. Why not the British Museum? Wouldn’t more people see it? Deuchar has no truck with this. ‘The people of Birmingham queued round the block to see just part of it,’ he says. ‘There were over 40,000 of them, sometimes waiting for hours and hours, just to see a scattering of items. It belongs there, to them.’

Let’s hope so. The Art Fund has itself given half a million to kick-start the fund-raising effort, but Deuchar has just three months to raise the rest of the cash, otherwise the treasure must be sold on the open market. ‘Failure is unthinkable,’ says Starkey, ‘it would be a tragedy if the hoard was lost.’

‘It’ll be all right,’ says Deuchar. ‘We’ll rise to the challenge.’ I believe him.

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