Should Councils Be Allowed To Sell Off Valuable Fine Artworks?
25/07/11Several cash-strapped local authorities are selling parts of their fine art collections to raise funds. Two valuable Picasso etchings are among almost 40 works of art being put up for auction by Bolton council, while in Tenterden in Kent, paintings are being sold to pay for new heating in the town hall. Is this a reasonable response in these difficult times, or are collections sacred? Should they cash in on the paintings in their vaults? Or should public fine art be saved for future generations?
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 the money should go towards improving the remaining collection - such as 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. Collections are a very long-term asset for the public benefit.
I read an argument that some fine art in some collections should not be there because they are in poor condition or not of gallery status. But who decides what to sell? I would argue that the diversity and texture of any public collection is as important as the merits of its best works. If you argue quality is the sole criteria of a national institution, that's like saying the BBC shouldn't have Top Gear because it is not as important as Total Strictly Come Ice Dancing Wipeout.
You see the joy of the national fine art collections is they contain collecting histories within them – the taste of curators past. I would say that every museum in this country could improve its collection by some judicious pruning, but that's a different thing from selling works to meet short-term funding needs. The worry I have about encouraging councils to sell off works you perceive to be of less quality is there will be a free-for-all.
On the other hand in many councils' collections there are pictures that the public never sees so surely it's wiser to get rid of them. The story last week about Tenterden council planning to sell art to pay for heating in the town hall is ridiculous. Wear warmer clothing for goodness sake or sell the Mayor’s limo.
But you know 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 young people and voluntary groups, the sale of fine arts collections needs to be given serious consideration.
I regularly visit regional museums and very rarely see many people in them. So there will come a time when 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. They're going to see it as an elitist luxury and are going to use them as a source of plunder.
We find ourselves in very unique times. My argument would be that there is greater value socially and financially in some cases, derived from keeping and using an art collection than there is from short-term selling off. But because of the extraordinary circumstances that councils find themselves in, then selling art is something that must be considered.
We live in an age of difficult decisions and the fine art world is not an exception to that.
Chris Sabian is a portrait artist with www.kutefineart.com/ and owner of www.paragonprints.co.uk/