Power struggle between Coram and Foundling Museum ends in settlement

Posted on: August 6, 2014 by

After a 2-year legal battle, a settlement was finalised in June 2014 between the Foundling Museum and the children’s charity Coram over the fate of the historic Foundling Hospital Art Collection and membership of the Museum’s board of Trustees. New articles of association were filed with the Charity Commission and Companies House on 26th June 2014, after continued pressure on Coram from both the Commission and the Office of the Attorney General.

Coram’s controversial sacking of the Museum’s chairman, Andrew Fane, in 2012 as well as the removal of independent Trustees in 2013, exacerbated tensions between the Museum and the charity. This suspended museum fundraising, thereby putting ownership of the unique collection at risk. Coram’s decisions were made in an attempt to gain managerial control of the Museum and to utilise the assets to further its own childcare initiatives.

To achieve this, the charity altered articles of previous agreements and consolidated the Museum’s accounts. Whether or not this move, albeit lawful, was justified has remained a matter of debate. The arts community was of the view that a charity should not interfere with the management of a heritage museum, with director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, calling Coram’s actions “incomprehensible”. Both parties therefore welcome the new changes as a means of reconciling charitable interests with artistic conservation.

The collection, which began in 1740, houses 100 paintings worth approximately £30 million. It includes invaluable works by William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough amongst many of their contemporaries. It grew following donations of commemorative artwork from eighteenth-century painters, including Hogarth’s portrait of Captain Thomas Coram. The Museum was established as an independent body in 1998. Following its expansion with modern works from Tracey Emin and a complete renovation in 2004, it currently welcomes roughly 50,000 visitors a year. It is also Britain’s oldest public gallery.

In 2001 an agreement, approved by the Attorney General, was reached between Coram and the then recently independent Foundling Museum. It outlined a 25-year purchase plan for the Museum to acquire paintings from Coram whilst allowing the collection to remain a public exhibit. However, between October 2012 and May 2013 this plan was suspended and eight independent Trustees were removed, including the Turner prizewinner Jeremy Deller. Concerns about the charity’s actions grew, culminating in a letter from the Office of the Attorney General to Coram stating that the “treatment of the museum … does not appear to fit with the spirit and intent of the [2001] arrangements…”

Coram’s position as ‘sole member’, which enabled the takeover, has been reviewed and amended by the recent settlement. In a joint statement, the Museum and the charity commented: “We are pleased to have reached an agreed governance framework, with approval from the Charity Commission, which we all believe is in the best interests of both the Foundling Museum and Coram. Under these arrangements, Coram is no longer sole member, and two new, independent Trustees have been appointed to work with the existing Board, which includes the reinstated former Trustees.” These new independent Trustees have been named: Monisha Shah, a trustee of the Tate and Director of Hogerty Hill Ltd, and Paul Zuckerman, Treasurer of the Art Fund.

The settlement has also given rise to a number of other important changes. The Foundling Museum has confirmed that its accounts have been de-consolidated from Coram’s. Furthermore, museum members now include all Museum Trustees, with Coram holding just one vote. The Collection purchase programme has also been reinstated.

This new chapter in Coram and the Foundling Museum’s history sees collaboration as the key. The two establishments jointly comment: “The plan for the Museum to purchase the historic art collection from Coram over time remains our shared goal – we are delighted that the Museum has recently secured the purchase of the painting of Christ’s Hospital by Samuel Wale. The Collection will continue to be maintained and protected by the Foundling Museum for the enjoyment of all and the benefit of children.”

Such a debate clearly illuminates the conflicts of interest that remain between arts and charitable organisations. Directly addressing this issue, the Charity Commission defines such ‘Conflicts of Interest’ as: “…any situation in which a trustee’s personal interests or responsibilities that they owe to another body may, or may appear to, influence or affect the trustee’s decision making.”

Indeed the solution to such a situation lies in either separating each party’s gains or looking to amalgamate and harmonise disparate ambitions. The settlement between Coram and the Foundling Museum, however, signifies a renewed attempt to value a shared past and a desire to preserve public access to a nationally significant collection.

In regards to plans for the near future, in light of this recent settlement, they jointly claimed that: “Coram and the Foundling Museum are looking forward to working together this year to celebrate Coram’s 275th anniversary and the Foundling Museum’s 10th anniversary and supporting each other in the future.”