The precarious future of public art

Published 29 April 2015

As the local government funding gap grows, councils will cash in on their art collections, warns Louisa Buck

  • From the Spring 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Whoever wins the General Election in May, the future looks precarious for our public art collections. According to a recent report by the Local Government Association, core funding for councils will have shrunk by 40 per cent in real terms over the course of this parliament, and there’s no light on the horizon, with all the main political parties in agreement that national and local government spending cuts will continue until at least 2020. And the funding gap for local services will widen by a boggling £2.1 billion every year until the end of the decade.

    In this bleak climate it is no surprise that beleaguered local authorities are looking long and hard at the assets sitting in their museums and public spaces and – especially in the context of a temptingly buoyant art market – pondering the benefit of some sales to raise much-needed cash. Some have already done so: in July last year Northampton Borough Council sold a 4,000-year-old Egyptian statue of Sekhemka for nearly £15.8 million, and in 2013 the sale of Chinese porcelain from the Riesco Collection raised £8.24 million for Croydon City Council. Others continue to try. Tower Hamlets has been prevented from auctioning off Henry Moore’s Draped Seated Woman – known as ‘Old Flo’ (pictured) – only because Bromley Council challenged Tower Hamlets’ ownership of the work; the court decision is due later this year.

  • Henry Moore’s ‘Draped Seated Woman’ (1957-58) in its original site at Stifford Estate, Stepney Gren, c.1962

    Henry Moore’s ‘Draped Seated Woman’ (1957-58) in its original site at Stifford Estate, Stepney Gren, c.1962

    © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2015 /

  • But while there’s no doubt that in the face of savage public spending cuts in all quarters the arts cannot be regarded as immune, there have to be other options apart from such ad-hoc asset stripping. Even the immediate benefits are questionable: nearly half of the proceeds from the sale of Sekhemka went to Lord Northampton (whose ancestors originally donated the statue) and both Northampton and Croydon museums lost their Arts Council accreditation and were expelled from the Museums Association for five years – blighting both their reputations and their prospects for future funding or sponsorship.

    The Museums Association already acknowledges that, on occasion, sales have to be made and in 2007 changed its code of ethics to accept ‘financially motivated disposal’. But they added a string of criteria in an attempt to ensure that any sales would be the right ones and made for the right reasons. However, the stipulations have been criticised as vaguely worded and open to abuse.

    So what instead? Many believe that an effective alternative would be for all of our public collections to sign up to a code of ethics that includes the crucial stipulation that any funds generated by sales must be ploughed back into the collections and not used for any other purpose. Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, says, “It is not helpful that different institutions have their own policy statements on de-accessioning: we should get to a point where the sector is able to take a united and robust position and make a clear commitment to reinvesting in its collections.” This would not only ensure the quality, vigour and longevity of our public collections but also lay down a firm marker that public collections really do belong to the public.

    If we are to maintain the health of our public art collections and to weather the financial storms ahead, there must be an across-the-board consensus that they are worth preserving for social, cultural, educational and aspirational purposes, and that they are as crucial to the health of an integrated, civilized society as schools, hospitals, public housing and social services. Back in the early 1980s, another financially precarious time, there was a widely-used slogan which once again needs to be shouted from the rooftops: “Art is not a luxury.”

    Louisa Buck is a British art critic and contemporary art correspondent for The Art Newspaper.

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