V&A urged to address alleged conflicts of interest after trustee hosted private events at museum

The charity and DCMS defended the events, arguing they were part of the Victoria and Albert Museum's corporate partnership scheme and that Ben Elliot’s company paid for use of the venue

The Victoria and Albert Museum (Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images)
The Victoria and Albert Museum (Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images)

The Victoria and Albert Museum has been urged to address alleged conflicts of interest after a trustee organised private events for business associates using the charity’s premises.

Barbara Keeley MP, Labour’s shadow minister for arts and civil society, said the V&A risked being “brought into disrepute” over the claims.

The V&A, an exempt charity regulated by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, did not deny that Ben Elliot, who is a trustee for the museum as well as co-chair of the Conservative Party, hosted invitation-only events at the venue for members of his multimillion-pound “luxury concierge” business.

Under government rules, boards must make sure that trustees’ personal business interests are kept separate from the work of the charity.

Both the charity and DCMS defended the events, arguing that they were part of the V&A’s corporate partnership scheme and that Elliot’s company paid the museum to use the venue.

But the rules state that trustees must not “receive any benefit from their charity, including in return for any service they provide to it, unless they have legal authority to do so”, which must be obtained “in advance” of any potential conflict arising.

Any activities must be “clearly in the charity’s interest”.

The V&A did not provide evidence when asked by Third Sector whether Elliot had requested or been given that authority, or that the board had discussed the events.

Claims about a conflict of interest were first made by the researcher Alex May earlier this year, who said it was “astonishing the board of trustees is allowing this to happen”.

It comes after revelations last week that DCMS had spoken with the V&A over separate reports that a private tour by its chair of trustees was auctioned to raise funds for the Conservative Party.

Elliot is founder and co-director of the private firm Quintessentially, which describes itself as a “luxury concierge service”, offering paying members the chance to access “private and exclusive cultural experiences” and “original experiences in exciting, sought-after locations all over the world”.

According to the firm’s website, these experiences included at least two private events for Quintessentially members held at the V&A in 2018 and 2019.

The first, a breakfast and “behind-the-scenes talk” about the museum’s 2018 Frida Kahlo exhibition, was hosted by Elliot and a curator working for the charity.

A second private Quintessentially event was held at the V&A a year later, this time to coincide with a Christian Dior exhibition. This was hosted by Elliot on his own.

Neither event was advertised to V&A members or the general public on the museum’s website. The V&A did not deny that they were available only to people signed up to Elliot’s firm.

Quintessentially does not publish the cost of becoming a member, but in 2019 the trade magazine Business Standard reported that annual membership fees in the US ranged from about £6,000 “to six figures”, catering to individuals with an average net worth of about £40m.

Elliot has been a V&A trustee since January 2017.

A V&A spokesperson told Third Sector: “The V&A works with a number of corporate partners to hold paid-for events within the museum, which allows us to offer a rich series of experiences and access to our collections, such as early morning views to our award-winning exhibition programme.

“In all instances of working with corporate partners, including those events that you have listed below, our partners pay fees which are clearly documented within our accounts.”

The list of the charity’s corporate partners provided by the V&A does not include Quintessentially.

The museum’s accounts for 2018/19 and 2019/20 both show £1,000 payments from Quintessentially to the V&A, which the charity said represented payment for the events without any discount.

Keeley said: “Charities do not exist for trustees to further their political or business interests.

“Ben Elliot’s use of the V&A for private company events raises further questions about conflicts of interest and plays into a long-standing pattern of the Conservative Party and government playing loose with the rules.

“During a cost-of-living crisis it is contemptible that the chair of the Conservative Party is selling off perks of access to events at the V&A to rich clients to profit his own business.

“The V&A is a world-leading museum that should not be brought into disrepute by being linked to this sort of Tory sleaze.”

Third Sector approached Quintessentially for comment but had not received a response before publication of this article.

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