Outspoken art critic Brian Sewell has urged councils to sell off publicly-owned works of art that “aren’t up to scratch” to protect vital frontline public services.
Sewell said local councils own thousands of items worth millions of pounds that have no great national significance and could be sold to raise funds.
He singled out Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery as one such venue that could sell some of its assets, including its portrait of Lady Noble by Walter Sickert, which is currently not on display.
The controversial writer told the BBC’s Inside Out West programme this week that Bath and North East Somerset Council’s gallery has a collection that’s been described as a “lucky dip” that serves “no actual purpose”.
“You might argue that you could take anything from it and no one would notice,” he said.
“I would go further than local museums. If you went round the National Gallery with a really critical eye you might get rid of 800 pictures because they simply aren’t up to scratch,” he added.
The Museums and Galleries Act 1992 would put a stop to this as it prevents the trustees of the National Gallery from placing objects under the hammer in such a fashion, but local councils have more freedom with their collections.
According to the programme’s researchers, Swindon council owns 245 items insured at £6.4 million, Cheltenham owns 2,600 items insured at £19.7 million, while Bath and North East Somerset owns 11,700 items insured at £10.3 million, most of which may even be in storage, like the portrait of Lady Noble. In total, 80 per cent of art works owned by museums and galleries in the west of England cannot be found on a gallery wall.
Maurice Davies, Museums Association, said: “I think it’s tragic when short-term reasons lead to the selling of works of art. It happens terribly rarely, which I think is a sign local councils recognise it’s not a good thing to do.”
Sewell said: “The art world is not sacred . . . Most of the people in the art world, and the museum world, regard the de-accessioning of possessions from museums and galleries with horror. But it’s a horror that has no real base to it . . . Why have a museum full of rubbish?”
Victoria Art Gallery manager Jon Benington argued: “The art collections are there to inform, to educate, to inspire. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. You can’t bring them back.”
If you would like to comment on this story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will publish your thoughts and opinions.
"Bath & North East Somerset Council aims to make the district a vibrant, distinctive place with world class arts and culture through our award winning museums – the Roman Baths, Fashion Museum, and Victoria Art Gallery. These provide a huge boost to visitor numbers as well as the tourist/ retail trade and help define Bath's status as a World Heritage Site. There is a direct benefit to the local taxpayer because our heritage services make a surplus of over £3m each year which is then reinvested to support frontline services such as street cleaning, libraries and waste services across the area.
To help achieve this surplus, the Council provides a varied and interesting range of artworks at our attractions, including Victoria Art Gallery which attracted 117,000 visitors last year. Like all museums, at any one time a proportion of the Gallery's collection is in store, enabling it to rotate its displays and keep people coming back.
Our approach to maintaining local artworks
The Gallery has 11,700 artworks in its permanent collections worth an estimated £10.29m. The value of artworks on display at any one time is over £8m. The Gallery exhibits work that has been bequeathed, donated or donated with Gift Aid.
Our Acquisitions & Disposal Policy is in line with national best practice and observes the requirements of nationally accredited status which entitles us to access grant aid to purchase artwork to improve the variety of our collection and encourage more people to visit our attractions.
Breaching public trust by selling-off parts of our collection could result in accredited status being withdrawn meaning our ability to improving our range of art to encourage more people to visit Bath would be undermined. It could also result in the withdrawal of Designated status from the roman Baths, Fashion Museum and Bath Record Office. Designation recognises nationally-important collections in non-national institutions and brings access to considerable sums of grant-aid from the Designation Challenge Fund.
The success of the Victoria Art Gallery
The Victoria Art Gallery is the principal art museum in the district and easily the most popular museum with local residents and is extremely popular with tourists who are likely to visit our other museums at the same time. Its collections have strong local ties and helps define Bath’s status as a World Heritage Site.
Even when collections are in store, they are still accessible to anyone who wants to see them. People can do this by making a special appointment or by joining one of the regular public 'store tours', behind-the-scenes visits with a curator to see the works in store close-up. The Gallery's innovative 'Adopt-A-Picture' scheme enables individuals and businesses to pay for the conservation of works of art that are in too poor a condition to exhibit in public. The adopter benefits from having the artwork on their wall for a year, after which it can go on public view in the Gallery with a plaque recognising the adopter's generosity.
Portrait of Lady Noble by Walter Sickert
The portrait of Lady Noble by Walter Sickert was on public display for many years until relatively recently when, as happens with many works of art, it returned to store to 'rest' (ie have a spell away from public view and from exposure to light) and to make way for another work of art to have a public airing. The painting was a gift from Lady Noble herself to the Council as a way of ensuring that a work by an important British artist would remain secure in public ownership in perpetuity."
Katy Atkins, Communications and Media Officer, Bath & North East Somerset Council