Opinion: Russborough cannot be saved by art sales alone

Historic houses need robust endowments for a sustainable chance of survival

 ‘Portrait of a bearded man’, by Rubens – part of the Beit collection,  for auction at Christie’s London, in July

‘Portrait of a bearded man’, by Rubens – part of the Beit collection, for auction at Christie’s London, in July

 

The Alfred Beit Foundation (ABF), a charitable trust, has recently announced its intention to sell a small selection of Old Master and other paintings to fund the ongoing operation of Russborough, one of Ireland’s architecturally significant Palladian houses. The works are being sold to facilitate the establishment of an endowment fund, which is necessary to safeguard the long-term future of the house.

It was the wish of Sir Alfred and Lady Beit that the house be open to the public when they gifted the house and its contents to the ABF in 1976. The Beits had previously presented their finest paintings to the National Gallery of Ireland to ensure their long-term protection and enjoyment by the public.

Sadly, at the time of the establishment of the ABF, neither the Beits nor the original trustees realised the necessity of providing a robust endowment.

Today it is clearly understood that for any historic house to have a long-term, sustainable future, it must have such an endowment. In the UK, the National Trust does not consider taking responsibility for a property unless it is accompanied by a substantial endowment of many millions sufficient to sustain the buildings and ongoing running costs. Similarly the trustees of the ABF must now establish a permanent, ring-fenced endowment to preserve the future of the house and surrounding estate.

Disposing of assets

Most of the pictures that the ABF has decided to sell have not been on view at Russborough (or elsewhere) for many years, following four separate notorious thefts. They have been in off-site storage. It is with a heavy heart that the board decided to sell some of these paintings.

Since 2007, almost €5 million has been spent on improving the house and grounds at Russborough. Visitor numbers to the house have doubled to 24,000 with visitors to the estate increasing fivefold to more than 100,000 last year.

Some of the main rooms have been redecorated. A splendid exhibition devoted to the Beits has been created. Artisan workshops have been established. Restoration of the walled garden is under way, supported by the efforts of the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland. Walks and woodland areas have been developed through the estate and a new coach entrance, road and coach park built. Significant critical works to the roof and infrastructure of the almost 300-year-old building have been undertaken.

More urgent and essential work is planned to assist the care of artworks and to maintain, preserve and develop this important historic building and its surrounding parkland.

Russborough’s critical financial situation is not unique; other historic buildings throughout this country and overseas face similar dilemmas.

Fundraising campaign

In recent years, the trustees of the ABF met with Ministers to advise them in some detail of Russborough’s financial difficulties. While sympathetic, they were not in a position to offer financial support. ABF’s fundraising committee actively evaluated fundraising opportunities, but a fundraising campaign to achieve many millions of euro is costly to establish and offers no guarantee of success. Efforts are continuing.

Despite the significant increase in visitor numbers from Ireland and overseas, the income simply does not cover the annual operating deficit. All costs incurred each year are essential to keep the house and grounds open and to fulfil the objectives of the foundation.

One-off sales and ongoing deficits are unsustainable and the trustees must exercise their fiduciary responsibilities in seeking to protect the long-term survival of Russborough. The alternative is to mothball this great house, put up the shutters and allow the house and estate to fall into decay. The long-serving and committed staff would have to be let go and the public would be denied the pleasure of visiting this beautiful, architecturally important house and surrounding parkland.

Russborough’s plight must be considered against a background of recent drastic cuts across the heritage sector. While Russborough has been generously funded for some capital projects in the past, by Fáilte Ireland and others, there have been no funds from the Heritage Council in recent years due to the contraction in its own funding.

In the meantime, the ABF’s ambition is to establish a sustainable, long-term future for Russborough to enable it to be enjoyed and appreciated by increasing numbers of people.

Judith Woodworth is chairwoman of the Alfred Beit Foundation, which owns Russborough and its demesne

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