Should councils cash in on art?

Photo: Bolton Council Robert Gemmell Hutchison's Seagulls and Sapphire Seas could fetch £180,000

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As local councils cut essential services to make ends meet, should they cash in on the paintings in their vaults? Or should public art be saved for future generations?

Inside Bolton Museum's storage sheds, on an industrial estate on the edge of town, bright yellow buckets are catching leaks from the roof and a small pile of plaster and wood has fallen off the ceiling.

The crumbling warehouses hold an endearingly random collection of relics from Bolton's past.

There is an original Spinning Jenny, boxes of roving bobbins, lamp posts, barrels, a local brewery's advertising statue and a dentists' chair.

The storage depot is in such disrepair that the council is selling it and needs to build a new one fast.

With no spare money in the main council budget, which is being cut by £60m over the next two years, it has been decided that 35 works from the council's fine art collection should be sold to meet the cost.

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Matthew Constantine, Bolton Museum & Archive Service

We live in an age of difficult decisions and the art world is not an exception to that”

End Quote Matthew Constantine Bolton Museum & Archive Service

"We've been forced into the very difficult decision - that it's better to sacrifice part of the collection in order to preserve the majority of the collection," says Matthew Constantine, a manager at the council's museum service.

The first 11 paintings were sold last week, fetching £35,000.

Future sales include Seagulls and Sapphire Seas by Robert Gemmell Hutchison, worth up to £180,000, The Somnabulist by John Everett Millais, which could fetch up to £100,000, plus an etching and a lithograph by Pablo Picasso.

The works going under the hammer are a small fraction of the 1,100 oil paintings, watercolours and drawings in Bolton Council's collection, worth a total of £16m.

Around 50 of those are on display at any one time at the town's art gallery.

So at a time when the council, like others around the country, is making painful cuts to balance the books, why not let the valuers into the vaults and put the proceeds into frontline services?

"Our argument has always been there is greater value socially, and financially in some cases, derived from keeping and using that [collection] than there is from short-term selling off," Mr Constantine says.

"If it weren't for the extraordinary circumstances that the council finds itself in, then it [selling art] is something we wouldn't be doing.

"But we live in an age of difficult decisions and the art world is not an exception to that."

Bolton Art Gallery

Some 50 of Bolton's 1,100 oil paintings, drawings and watercolours are on display at the gallery

There are around 200,000 oil paintings in public ownership in the UK, according to the Public Catalogue Foundation, which is in the process of logging them all.

Around 10% of those are held by local authorities, the foundation estimates.

Galleries are only allowed to sell paintings in exceptional circumstances and if the money goes towards improving the remaining collection - such as by building a new storage facility - under Museums Association rules.

"Any income from a sale of collections should be spent on the care or use of the museum collection, and shouldn't be spent beyond that," says the association's head of policy Maurice Davies.

"The collection is a very long-term asset for the public benefit.

"We're very clear that a museum couldn't say, 'Oh dear we're going to have to make three staff redundant, we'll sell a picture to pay their salaries for a year.' That would be completely unacceptable."

Bolton councillor Stephen Pickup believes art collections are beneficial for a town, but that authorities should have the option of selling paintings to pay for essential services that are at "serious risk".

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Eventually museums will be doing what museums do in America, which is selling stuff wholesale”

End Quote David Lee The Jackdaw magazine

He says: "When councillors are being forced to make very serious decisions affecting the quality of life of residents, to the extent of the potential closure of libraries and care homes, and funding being withdrawn for many projects supporting our young people and voluntary groups, the sale of arts collections should certainly be given serious consideration."

In 2006, Bury Council raised £1.4m by selling LS Lowry's A Riverbank to plug a budget shortfall. They were thrown out of the Museums Association as a result.

At the time, council leader Wayne Campbell said the authority was anxious to ensure money went to vulnerable children, and that "people come before a picture".

When that painting was sold, there were more than 300 Lowry works in the store rooms of public collections in nearby Salford and Manchester, according to David Lee, editor of art magazine The Jackdaw.

Public art should be pooled and shared more effectively, he says - but works should not be sold to "cover the financial incompetence" of councillors.

"The future is bleak because eventually museums will be doing what museums do in America, which is selling stuff wholesale," Lee says. "I'm absolutely certain."

Lee regularly visits regional museums, but says he "very rarely" sees many people in them.

"I think local councillors are going to start asking museums to justify huge tranches of public money being spent on facilities which few people are interested in," he continues.

"They're going to see it as an elitist luxury and are going to use them as a source of plunder."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    I do support the idea of Art and other items being sold as I believe that the purpose of local councils is to provide basic services not esoteric ones such as art. That said I abhor this trend of selling off the family silver for a short term issue - no one seems to think of what the futrue will hold.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Many people would of made donations to local galleries over the years in the express believe that they would be held in trust for everyone to enjoy & benefit from seeing them.

    To sell such works would be betrayal of this trust:
    especially if they though that they would be held in perpetuity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Surely the council can sell these pieces to private collectors on the condition that the piece is exhibited publicly for at least 2 months of every calendar year?

    Certainly they would get below market price stipulating these restrictions on a buyer, but it means a much need cash injection for the council without the piece disappearing from public view forever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    We can only sell works of art once. We can only sell housing estates, utilities companies and gold reserves once. They might dig us out of a short-term hole, but they stop being assets and aren't there for the next hole.
    I'd suggest they are held in trust for us so the council cannot sell them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Selling off the family silver is not a solution. What happens when the silver is all gone? It just delays the inevitable...

    The only long term solution is to balance the budget.


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