Anthony and Anne d’Offay

Anthony d’Offay did not grow up with paint brushes and easels scattered round the house. As a boy in Leicester, the son of a surgeon and an antiques dealer, he simply picked up the habit of attending art exhibitions at his local museum, and quickly learned to love them. “I was, like lots of young people, lonely, dazed and confused,” he says, “and I found some sort of comfort in culture. I felt by visiting the museum I could reach some sort of resolution to the dilemmas one faces as a teenager.”

Besides helping him “grow up”, as he puts it, those visits also stirred a passion for art that has become the focus of his life. Influenced and inspired by his wife Anne, herself a curator, he went on to become one of the world’s most successful art dealers and collectors. Together, the couple championed the work of Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko, Gilbert & George and many others. Indeed, with hindsight, the d’Offay Gallery in Dering Street, London, is now widely regarded as a vital catalyst for the renaissance in contemporary British art.

Ironically, the great appetite for contemporary artists that the d’Offays helped inspire also made their work too expensive for most regional galleries to buy. So, in February 2008, Anthony and Anne made the extraordinary announcement that they had decided to give almost their entire collection away – at a personal cost of roughly £100m – so that young people around the country would be able to view it forever, and for free.

In total, the d’Offays donated 725 individual pieces from 32 modern artists, including Warhol, Beuys, Koons, Arbus, Mapplethorpe, Viola and Hirst. Now owned jointly by the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, the works have formed a new national collection called Artist Rooms. This unique project stipulates that the pieces must regularly tour the country’s smaller galleries, where they will be grouped by individual artist, with no admission charge, and a focus on attracting new audiences.

Unsurprisingly, the project has also been a great success. In 2009, its first year, the various exhibitions were seen by a total of eight million people across Britain, more than 700,000 of whom were outside London or Edinburgh. At the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness on Orkney, for instance, around 14,000 people visited the Bill Viola show – an event that would once have simply been impossible.

And the d’Offays’ generosity has not stopped at their donation. Anthony continues to be active in curating the shows, promoting the project, and persuading other collectors and artists to add their own gifts to the group. “He’s such an enthusiast for art and this collection that he’s just very persuasive,” says Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate. “He’s not a flowery person, but what comes across is his integrity and his absolute passion – a belief that Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, for instance, really are very, very important artists who have changed the way we see the world.”

To enjoy something for nothing, to thrive with what one learned, and then to give that opportunity back to others: there is no purer philanthropic story. One can only speculate about how many 21st-century artists, curators, art-lovers and collectors will turn out to have been inspired by the d’Offays’ collection. Financially, it is certainly among the largest artistic gifts ever made to this country. Yet, to Anthony and Anne, it was just a favour being returned.