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Leeds Council owns 11,904 paintings

Last month I noted that the Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, Hilary Benn, had attacked the Government's advice to councils on 50 Ways to Save.

Mr Benn's complaint was that, included in the suggestions, was one about council's art collections and whether revenue could be obtained by art leasing. He thought this was an absurdly trivial matter.

But are the sums involved really so derisory? Let us take the example of Mr Benn's own council: Labour-run Leeds. In response to a Freedom of Information request they tell me they own 11,904 paintings, drawings and prints and 1,882 sculptures. Their collection is insured for £100 million - it is likely to be worth considerably more.

How  much of it is on permanent display? Here the Council becomes evasive:

"None of our works would be described as on 'permanent' show as leaving them out permanently would mean that we were not looking after them - especially in relation to prints, drawings and watercolours."

I could fight back at their pedantry by asking how much is on display at any given time, playing email ping pong with a further FOI request, each time waiting 20 working days for a reply.  But I don't really need to for the substantive point to be made. It is pretty obvious that only a small minority is on display at any time - the vast majority of these treasures are kept hidden away, gathering dust in a municipal storage depot, while the Leeds Council Taxpayer coughs up an insurance premium of...? £1 million a year?  £2 million a year?

This is not to dismiss the value of what can be seen. The Leeds Art Gallery is owned by the Council and displays hundreds of paintings, many owned by the council. Mr Benn really should visit - it is in his constituency. He might reflect on what a pity it is that there is only room for such a such a tiny proportion of the Council's art collection to be seen. That perhaps selling or leasing some works of art could be used to pay for more space to display others.

Or perhaps some of it could be used to reduce debt? Leeds City Council has long term debt of £1.26 billion. Last year it spent £126 million on interest on debt. That is equivalent to nearly half the revenue from Council Tax. Or about as much as it spends on housing and highways combined.

Incidentally their Statement of Accounts says:

The council owns approximately 1.3 million separate works of art and exhibits, and only those items which have a significant individual value are included in the balance sheet. The current overall insurance valuation of the whole collection is £100.8m, meaning that the lesser valued items have been given a collective value of £58.3m. Items within the collection are diverse, ranging from scientific specimens, to period fashion garments, to antique furniture.

The council has determined that it would not be practical within a justifiable level of cost to obtain individual valuations for its entire collection. Due to the extensive nature of the collection, only a limited number of items can be on public display at any one time.

So it is not just paintings that nobody can look at - but also clothes that nobody can wear, chairs that nobody can sit in. Shut away, boxed up. 1.3 million items. Quite staggering.

For Leeds City Council to have such a vast collection of assets in storage does not make sense - either from a financial or a cultural point of view. There can be a debate about whether to sell or lease, and if selling, where the proceeds should go. But if Mr Benn wishes to serve the interests of his constituents, he should not be dismissive of this concern.


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