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Councils should sell surplus art works

St Helens Council owns half a million pounds of art works, according to their response to a Freedom of Information request from the St Helens Reporter. The council claims that most of the collection is "regularly" put on public display. How does it justify hanging on to those items that are not?

Often when councillors suggest selling art that is sitting in storage, they are told by council officers that it would be illegal. This is broadly nonsense. Is the law different in Cambridgeshire where the county council sold a Lowry painting for £541,250? Or Leicestershire where paintings worth £170,000 have been sold? Or Bolton? There they have 1,100 paintings worth £16 million of which 50 are on display. They sold some for a few hundred thousand pounds to pay for a new warehouse to store the vast remainder - as the one they had was crumbling and leaking.

The proceeds of sales are not always ploughed back into "arts service." Bury Council sold a Lowry for £1.6 million. The council was reprimanded by the Museum Association and told it would have faced disciplinary proceedings for breaching the "Code of Ethics" had it not already resigned.  It must have cried all the way to the bank.

The debate should be on what the proceeds from the sale of surplus art works should go on.

In Southampton there is some dithering about whether or not to sell £7 million of paintings sitting in vaults, to pay for a new arts complex. There is a case for that. There is also a case for selling rather more of its £190 million art works to repay some of its £300 million of debt and reduce its £14.3 million interest bill.

Southampton's Council Tax leaflet should say (but doesn't, of course):

Your Council Tax raises £83.2 million for the Council's budget. The Council's share of your Council Tax is £1,239.21 for Band D. 17.5% of this goes on debt interest. That's £217 a year. We are maintaining this debt and charge you this interest bill in order to retain a huge number of expensive paintings in storage which you are not allowed to see.

Back in 1988 there was a report from the National Audit Office that identified among museums "huge backlogs in conservation and documentation" and a growing number of items remaining in storage with the instititons struggling to look after collections effectively.

Last year there was a Farrer & Co conference on "deaccessioning" and disposals. The arts minister Edward Vaizey suggested an alternative approach:

"While I believe that decisions about local authority managed collections must be taken at the local level, I would always encourage all local authorities to carefully weigh all the relevant factors before selling any works of art."

He added:

"There is no reason why institutions cannot be inventive in enabling their collection to be seen by more people in the community while at the same time generating income. For example, I would have no trouble with a museum lending a picture to a major local business for display in its public area but also charging for the privilege.”

Gary Tinterow, Engelhard Chairman of Nineteenth-Century, Modern and Contemporary Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art said:

“In America we have the sense that things may leave a museum: they may be then bought at auction by another museum, they may be bought by a private collector who may then donate it to another museum. We see things as constantly changing and growing and evolving in an organic way, and we don’t have as much as one has in Europe the notion of irrevocable loss: the notion that if it leaves the public domain then it is lost forever. That’s not the case in the United States and we see things come around and turn around and our collections constantly growing.”

Sir Simon Jenkins said:

"The hoarding instinct is, I have to say, close to being immoral. I feel more strongly about this than anything we’re discussing. I just cannot take vast amounts of fine art sitting in basements in London any more than I can take them sitting in attics all over the country. People painted pictures for other people to look at them. If we cannot show them the pictures, we should give them to someone else who can. The idea that there is something ideologically grand about constantly acquiring works of art so scholars can see them is the ultimate form of elitism.”

If institutions sell surplus art works rather than leave them rotting in storage will that discourage future donors? That has not been the experience of Hilary Bracegirdle, Director, Royal Cornwall Museum after their recent sale of Victorian paintings.

He says:

“Donors and patrons are not fools and they will not invest in an organization which isn’t sustainable. In a recent case a prospective donor went with a fine tooth comb through our accounts and business plans and met key staff and Trustees – and decided to leave us an internationally significant collection because we have an endowment fund. I’m always up front about why we took this action and it allows me a hook to say to people who want to give us anything – particularly if it’s a large collection or a very valuable collection – ‘would you consider endowing your gift to us?’ This legacy is now coming with a considerable endowment.

"Just as with gifts of houses to the National Trust, people are beginning to realise that new acquisitions come with responsibilities and that they can actually help us face those. Indeed, converse to received wisdom, we have never before been offered so many paintings and from very interesting collections."


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