Getty and NPG Jointly Acquire Reynolds’s Portrait of Mai

Posted in museums by Editor on April 28, 2023

From the Getty press release (25 April 2023). . .

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Mai (Omai), ca. 1776, oil on canvas, 236 × 146 cm.

The innovative collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery and Getty to jointly acquire Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai (Omai) has been successful. The National Portrait Gallery has raised £25 million which, thanks in huge part to a grant of £10m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, an Art Fund grant of £2.5m, together with a matching amount from Getty in the U.S., makes up the £50m needed to acquire the painting.

The National Portrait Gallery and Art Fund’s fundraising campaign has been made possible thanks to an extraordinary collaborative effort, including:
• An exceptional grant of £10m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, one of its most significant awards for saving a heritage treasure for the UK
• An Art Fund grant of £2.5m, the largest in its history
• Major contributions were also received from The Portrait Fund, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation and Julia and Hans Rausing, and support also came from the Idan and Batia Ofer Family Foundation and David & Emma Verey Charitable Trust, as well as many other generous trusts, foundations, and individuals.
• Donations from over 2,000 Art Fund members, National Portrait Gallery supporters and members of the public, giving gifts of all sizes

The shared ownership of the work and strategic partnership between the National Portrait Gallery and Getty is the result of an innovative model of international collaboration that enables and maximizes public access to the work in perpetuity. The two institutions will share the painting for public exhibition, research, and conservation care.

The painting will first be exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery when it reopens on June 22, following a major transformation project and will later will be shown at other institutions across the UK. Mai will travel periodically between the two countries, sharing time equally between them. The first Getty presentation will be in 2026, including the period when Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Olympic Games.

Sir Joshua Reynolds’ spectacular Portrait of Mai (Omai) holds a pivotal place in global art history, depicting the first Polynesian to visit Britain, and is widely regarded as the finest portrait by one of Britain’s greatest artists. Known as ‘Omai’ in England, Mai (ca. 1753–1779) was a native of Raiatea, an island now part of French Polynesia, who traveled from Tahiti to England with Captain James Cook. He spent the years 1774–76 in London, where he was received by royalty and the intellectual elite, and indeed became something of a celebrity. Mai returned to his homeland in 1777 and died there two years later.

Elizabeth Peyton, Omai (Afterlife) after Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Omai, 1776, 2023, © Elizabeth Peyton.

The National Portrait Gallery would like to thank the former owners for their co-operation in this process, and Christie’s for their support in the negotiations. Support for the campaign also came from leading artists Sir Antony Gormley, Rebecca Salter and Richard Deacon and historians Simon Schama, David Olusoga, and Simon Sebag-Montefiore. Artist Elizabeth Peyton created a new work, Omai (Afterlife) after Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Omai, 1776, 2023, inspired by the portrait.

Dr. Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery, said: “Reynolds’ majestic Portrait of Mai is by far the most significant acquisition the National Portrait Gallery has ever made, and the largest acquisition the UK has ever made, along with the Titians acquired by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland in 2009 and 2012. I would like to thank the 2,000 Art Fund members and National Portrait Gallery supporters across the UK and the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund for their significant and historic grants as well as the many other generous supporters. This includes major contributions from the Portrait Fund, Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation and Julia and Hans Rausing, and support from the Idan and Batia Ofer Family Foundation and the David and Emma Verey Charitable Trust. Together, you have made such an unprecedented endeavour possible. My thanks also to Getty for having the vision to join us in an innovative strategic partnership to ensure this uniquely important painting enters public ownership for the first time, in Reynolds’ 300th anniversary year, so its beauty can be seen and enjoyed by everyone. Heartfelt thanks too to my wonderful colleagues and everyone who worked night and day to make the impossible possible—they have done something extraordinary for all of us.”

Dr. Timothy Potts, Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, said: “Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai is not only one of the greatest masterpieces of British art, but also the most tangible and visually compelling manifestation of Europe’s first encounters with the peoples of the Pacific islands. The opportunity for Getty to partner with the Gallery in acquiring and presenting this work to audiences in Britain and California, and from around the world, represents an innovative model that we hope will encourage others to think creatively about how major works of art can most effectively be shared. The myriad artistic, historical, and cultural issues that Mai’s portrait raises for 21st-century viewers and researchers will be the starting point for a joint research project led by the Gallery and Getty in the years ahead.”

Dr. Simon Thurley CBE, Chair of the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), said: “I am absolutely delighted that we have reached this pivotal moment in the journey of Mai. It has been an incredible effort of public and private fundraising and I am proud that NHMF has been able to play such a vital role in saving it for the UK thanks to our grant of £10m—40% of the amount that the National Portrait Gallery needed to raise. The grant is one of the most substantial awards we have ever given to save a national treasure, and is befitting of this masterpiece, by one of the UK’s greatest artists, as it embodies such great cultural and historical significance.”

“It is wonderful news that the UK public, as well as a wider international audience thanks to the partnership acquisition, will now be able to enjoy the magnificent work of art, its fascinating story and complex themes. NHMF is a vital source of funding for our most important heritage at risk, so it is incredibly exciting that we are able to support the National Portrait Gallery to acquire Mai, to be on display for all to see. We are also delighted that Mai will later embark on a tour allowing visitors from across the UK to marvel at its greatness and explore its heritage.”

Lord Smith of Finsbury, Chairman, Art Fund, said: “When an exceptional work of art comes up for sale, Art Fund stands ready to help museums in the UK bring the work into a public collection, for everyone to enjoy. Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai (Omai) is just such a painting, and it’s a tribute to the National Portrait Gallery and Getty’s innovative shared ownership model that the painting will now be publicly accessible, forever. Art Fund is delighted to have awarded a grant of £2.5 million—the largest in our 120 year history—and grateful to the incredible generosity of over 2,000 Art Fund members, National Portrait Gallery supporters, individuals and trusts who swiftly gave to our appeal. We also thank the trustees of the National Heritage Memorial Fund for their significant support towards this acquisition, a powerful statement of the importance of bringing this work of art into public view in the UK. The collective effort to save this painting has been remarkable.”

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, Arts & Heritage Minister, said: “I would like to congratulate the National Portrait Gallery and Getty on their fantastic efforts to make this joint acquisition possible and secure this wonderful painting. Thanks to their work and the export bar process, it will now be able to be enjoyed by people across the country for generations to come.”

Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England, said: “The Arts Council is proud to have supported the recommendation of the Reviewing Committee that this outstanding work of art should continue to be available to the public in the UK. The collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery and Getty will mean that it will be seen in an international context, while also ensuring that we diversify the national collection and open opportunities for research and learning about our national history and culture.”

Sir John Leighton, Director-General, National Galleries of Scotland, said: “There are many great works of art associated with this country and its history but surely only a small number that can be described as truly extraordinary. The Reynolds Portrait of Mai (Omai) belongs in this category and now, thanks to an inspiring and enlightened partnership between the National Portrait Gallery and Getty, a very wide national and international audience will be able to enjoy this superb painting. This is wonderful news and a cause for real celebration.”

Victoria Pomery, Chief Executive Officer, The Box, Plymouth said: “I am thrilled to hear that Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai (Omai) has been acquired in this the 300th anniversary year of the artist’s birth. Plymouth has a long association with Reynolds who was born in Plympton, now part of the modern city, in 1723. Indeed, Reynolds’ first studio was located in Devonport, Plymouth. We are delighted that this important portrait will be shared to places such as The Box enabling further conversations and discussions on Empire, representation and place and for audiences in the south west and across the country to see and understand more about this painting.”

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