Home Arts Joshua Reynolds’ ‘Portrait of May’, formerly known as Omai, to be jointly acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and the Getty Museum

Joshua Reynolds’ ‘Portrait of May’, formerly known as Omai, to be jointly acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and the Getty Museum

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The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is preparing to save the work of Joshua Reynolds Portrait of Mai (Omai) (circa 1776) in an unusual joint acquisition with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In today’s statement, the two museums announced their intention to “jointly acquire and share ownership” of a “new model of international collaboration”.

The idea is that Reynolds’ painting will be exhibited in London and Los Angeles half the time, being moved between the two museums perhaps every five years.

The painting depicts a Tahitian known as Mai (c. 1753-1780), who arrived in Britain with Captain Cook in 1774. Although until now the portrait has been titled Omai by the NPG and the British authorities, her title is changed today to more accurately reflect the Tahitian name of the sitter. The image has been owned since 2001 by Dublin businessman John Magnier.

Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the NPG, comments: “The portrait is unique in British and global culture and yet has never been in a museum collection: now it has the potential to be in two, one facing the Pacific where Mai came from, and the other just a few yards from Reynolds’ studio, where he was painted.

Timothy Potts, the director of Getty, says: “Reynolds’s Portrait of Mai is both an icon of British portraiture and a particularly lofty depiction of a person of color from the Pacific Islands – an area which at the time of May was colonized by Britain and other European nations.

A UK export license has been postponed three times by the Minister for the Arts to allow a UK buyer to match the price, most recently earlier this month until June 10. By this stage, the NPG had raised almost half of the £50m (including £2.5m from the Art Fund), but finding the rest was an almost insurmountable challenge. Discussions have therefore intensified with the Getty to try to reach an agreement on a joint acquisition.

Among the hurdles was continued support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which had tentatively allocated a £10million grant for a single UK purchase. The fund was concerned about government money for an acquisition that would be in America half the time.

However, there was an equally strong argument that keeping the portrait in Britain on this basis would still benefit British gallery-goers and be better than losing the Reynolds altogether. Today’s statement acknowledges the £10m pledge, meaning the fund is now supporting a joint acquisition.

Another hurdle is that the Getty will need firm assurances from the UK authorities that temporary export licenses will still be available to allow May travel periodically to Los Angeles.

If the joint acquisition had not been agreed, the painting could well have been acquired solely by the Getty. It is one of the few museums in the world that can spend tens of millions of dollars on acquisitions, thanks to its massive endowment. In the past he purchased a number of masterpieces which were deferred for export from British collections when British museums failed to raise the necessary funds.

It will be the first time that a UK museum has cooperated with an overseas museum on a major acquisition of a physical work of art, although this has occasionally happened in Europe. In 2016, the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam purchased a 160 million euros worth of Rembrandt portraits of Marten Soolmans and his wife Oopjen Coppit. Digital works, however, like those of Christian Marclay The clock (2010), were acquired jointly by UK and international institutions.

Today’s statement says the NPG still needs to raise just under £1m to pay its half price, but it’s almost inconceivable that this won’t be realised. There may well be technical details of the joint purchase that have yet to be worked out, but today’s announcement suggests that these will be satisfactorily resolved.

UK Arts Minister Stephen Parkinson said in the joint statement that the two museums are “close to finalizing an agreement”, suggesting it is not certain, but it is virtually agreed.

May should be presented to the NPG when it reopens on June 22 after a major renovation of the building. Today’s statement says it is scheduled to be displayed at the Getty during the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. This suggests that, at least initially, Reynolds’ masterpiece will travel every five years.

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