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Works of Art in public collections – philanthropy at a price – Part 1

Works of Art in public collections – philanthropy at a price – Part 1

Three recent news stories have highlighted the dilemma faced by Local Authorities and Councils in both balancing their books and caring for and curating their public collections.

First up is Glasgow City Council. The Burrell Collection was bequeathed to the City Fathers in the mid-20th century by the wealthy shipping magnate and benefactor, Sir William Burrell. Due however to stringent conditions attached to the bequest the collection remained in (allegedly less-than-secure) storage for several decades.

It was only in the 1980s therefore, having finally negotiated a compromise with the trustees, that a dedicated building was created to house the eclectic collection; located within easy access of the City – contrary to Sir William’s wishes – but in the relatively “rural” setting of Pollock Park where pollution and smog would be least likely to damage items, this having been his principal concern.

Looking after such a collection comes at a not inconsiderable price. Thirty years on from the founding of the museum £15 million is now required for refurbishment, but while the trustees are supporting and indeed encouraging this revamp there remains the thorny issue of raising the required funds. One solution which could at least have contributed to the refurbishment is to lend items to foreign exhibitions. Once again however the trustees are hamstrung by conditions; Sir William was paranoid about the risks of sending items abroad. It has therefore required a special “Burrell Collection (Lending and Borrowing) (Scotland) Bill Committee” to be convened at Holyrood, which has sensibly concluded that the “time has come to allow the collection to be seen by a wider audience” and is currently in the process of drafting legislation to enable this relaxation.

A rather-less amicable conclusion to a similar situation currently exists at Croydon, where the Council are faced with a hefty £33 million bill to renovate the 50 year old Fairfield Halls, a public arts centre and performance venue. To reduce the burden on local taxpayers their chosen solution was to sell by auction twenty-six items from a collection of 230 oriental ceramics and works of art bequeathed to the Council in 1959 by local collector and businessman, Raymond Riesco. The resultant furore, led by opposition groups on the Council and supported by local residents, has made national headlines and has resulted in the Council being expelled from the Museums Association. To rub salt into the already exposed wounds, the resultant sale conducted by Christie’s in Hong Kong has raised just £8 million – somewhat less than the anticipated £9-14 million and considerably less than the total sum required.

Meanwhile, in light of the above, Southampton Council’s recent volte-face over proposals to sell off items from the city’s art collection to meet a third of the cost of a £15m Titanic exhibition and civic art gallery is not entirely unexpected.