Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Local councils resist temptation to cash-in on their art—for the time being

Local councils resist temptation to cash-in on their art—for the time being

Budgets cuts and closures across England increase fears that sell-offs will follow

by Javier Pes  |  13 January 2016
Northampton council sold the Sekhemka statue for £15.8m
Cuts in public funding to local museums across England, many of them run by local councils, combined with a new incentive to sell council assets has increased fears that more works of art and antiquities in public collections could be sold. A study by the UK Museums Association (MA) reveals that around 11% of the 115 respondents to its 2015 survey said they are considering "financially-motivated disposals" this year.

Fine art and antiquities are most at risk. "The more valuable items are the first to get put on the auction block," says Alistair Brown, the MA's policy officer. He added that the "shadow of Sekhemka hangs over the whole sector", referring to the controversial sale of an Ancient Egyptian statue by Northampton Borough Council, which had been given to the Midlands town in the 1880s. It was sold for £15.8m to an overseas buyer at Christie's in 2014. The council defended the sale saying proceeds would go towards revamping the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, where the statue had long been a star object. The MA condemned the decision as unethical and "a violation of public trust" as the sale was not a "last resort".

The Chancellor's announcement in the spending review in November that councils could keep 100% of the proceeds of sales of assets, which could include museum collections or historic properties housing heritage items, has "ruffled a few feathers," Brown says.

On average, local authorities across England have cut their cultural budgets by around 25% to 30% since 2010, but the majority have not resorted to the sale rooms. But in December England's local councils learned that their funding from central government would be further reduced by around 7% between 2016 and 2020, so more closures of branch museums looks inevitable. Around 18% of respondents reported that part of the museum or a branch had closed or would close this year. In the north of England, Lancashire County Council is planning to close five of its smaller museums at the end of March. Lancaster City Museum and Lancaster Castle while remaining open could lose core funding from the council in 18 months' time.

The art historian Bendor Grosvenor says: "It is alarming that, no matter how well some local authority museums do, their work goes unrewarded by councillors looking for easy budget cuts." Looking closer at the figures in the survey, he points out that the broader picture should not be overdramatised. "The fact that there has been no overall reduction in local authority museum funding may come as a surprise to many, while the 6% increase in self-generated income is testament to the hard work of museum staff across the country."