A trend of sorts has developed in recent years for local authorities to propose selling off council-owned art to help offset the impact of government cuts. In some cases, such as Northampton Borough Council’s sale of the Egyptian Sekhemka statue in 2014, the council made a substantial profit at the expense of its reputation; in other cases, such as Kirklees Council’s proposed sell-off of its Francis Bacon painting in 2017, public and legal opposition prevented the sale.
The recent decision of Hertfordshire County Council to dispose of items from its art collection seems at first glance to be a part of this trend. After a review of its collections, the council has decided to sell for profit or otherwise get rid of many of its artworks, which it characterises as a burden on council resources. This decision has inspired huge local opposition, including a petition with more than 1600 signatures (at the time of writing).
But in Hertfordshire’s case there are a couple of things that don’t fit the usual picture. Firstly, this isn’t a case of selling off one or two ‘high value’ items – it is the council potentially getting rid of a whopping 91 per cent of its entire art collection. (There are 1,826 works currently in the collection, of which 167 have been set aside to keep.) And secondly, the total profit it expects from selling off this chunk of its collection is a measly £300,000 – or 0.03 per cent of the council’s annual budget.
So what’s going on? Why go to all the trouble and potential reputational damage? To my mind, there are two related explanations. The first is financial. Hertfordshire County Council estimate that the ongoing cost of managing and exhibiting the collection would run at £70,000 to £100,000 per year – money that they say they just don’t have given the wider constraints on local authority funding.
But the second is a purely managerial approach to the collection which means that it is viewed by its owners as a burden, rather than as a matter of pride or a potential resource. Hertfordshire County Council argue that the majority of works in its collection have nothing to do with Hertfordshire and its history and therefore don’t belong in the collection.
This view seems to overlook the way in which the collection was brought together in the post-war period for use in a pioneering schools loan programme, established by the county’s then chief education officer John Newsom. The schools programme gathered together quality works from a variety of styles and backgrounds, including recognised names such as Keith Vaughan, Edward Bawden, and Frances Hodgkins. The service, through which all state-run schools in the county could request these works for short-term loans, was suspended in 2014. It seems to be part of the story of Hertfordshire itself, and one worth preserving in some way – but Hertfordshire County Council say that they want to ‘focus on maintaining a small, Hertfordshire significant collection’.
If the council cannot see the value in its collection, then perhaps it can be brought out of storage and used better by a different organisation. However, the disposal process, if it is to be done, must be carried out in an ethical way which ensures that that the public will have a say in its future. The Museums Association Code of Ethics set out clear guidelines for disposal of public collections and might reasonably result in this collection being donated to a different institution, such as the University of Hertfordshire, or a Hertfordshire-based museum, or setting up a charitable trust to care for the collection. These are, incidentally, all ideas set out in the expert report commissioned by the council when it set out in this journey in 2016 – we must hope, therefore, that Hertfordshire County Council follows its own advice.
Alistair Brown is Policy Officer at the Museums Association.