In a press release in November, London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) announced a £10 million (~$12M) donation in support of the gallery’s Inspiring People project, a massive renovation, refurbishment, and re-presentation of the collection. The museum is prepared to take that money straight to the bank — that is, except for some £3 million (~$3.57M), which they are taking straight to the toilet.
The loo in question is a former Victorian lavatory-turned-condemned-ticket kiosk that sits directly behind the museum’s main building, across Charing Cross Road. Despite the central location, the above-ground space measures just 250 square feet offering little value to anyone who doesn’t already hold a significant piece of adjacent property (a 1,700-square-foot area is below ground level). After listing in 2021 and spending a year being mocked on a London Urban Oddities group on Facebook for its eye-popping price tag, real estate has at last found its ideal niche buyer, proving there really is someone out there for everyone, even a long-disused public restroom.
Though it has not served as a bathroom since the 1970s, the structure had a second act as “Tourist Island,” where the now-closed kiosk offered a one-stop-shop for guided tours, theater tickets, London Pass, and other fare for visitors to the iconic city. The museum already has plans to apply for permits to demo the existing structure and create an NPG annex or exhibition space. In a parable that can truly inspire us all to dream big in 2023, this little loo is a rags-to-riches tale, coming from humble origins as a Victorian restroom to become a hot new art destination.
However charming, however, this Cinderella story can’t distract us from the fact that the renovation project’s benefactor is the Ukraine-born, British-American billionaire Len Blavatnik — who made most of his wealth in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Blavatnik denies having any connections to the Kremlin, but according to a Bloomberg report, several of his former business partners were sanctioned by the US and Europe, and CNN called Blavatnik “the most prodigious example of Russian reputation laundering.” The nearly $12M he gave to the NPG is the largest private donation ever received by the museum. Hand-washing? More like art-washing!