Art is inspirational, whether you like an unmade bed or Banksy’s street art, are mesmerised by Turner, a Holbein or Frink. It offers something for everyone, and is not merely an investment to live in a strongbox.
Yet, as Harry Phibbs revealed recently, the Government is hoarding about £3.5 billion of art, and local authorities about £2 billion, with barely 3% ever finding its way onto public display.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. It was recently reported that only one per cent of the Natural History Museum’s collections are displayed. Inevitably, there are reasons: some items are too fragile, whilst others will be undergoing restoration, and some will be on loan. Another reason will be lack of space or even pertinence: an expert will see something for what it is, but a visitor would just see a piece of bone or rock, which won’t excite the imagination. But I still remember the Mammoth from my regular childhood visits.
Sadly, for any publicly owned museum or art gallery anywhere in the country, the story is the same. Millions of pounds are spent on storing items, rather than putting them in the public domain.
In Ipswich, for example, I recently became aware that we have a wonderful (albeit small) collection of Chinese porcelain which has never seen the light of day. When I asked why not, the answer came back, ‘it’s vulnerable to theft because of the high demand’. It’s also inevitably very delicate – but exquisitely beautiful and it belongs to local residents, and the broader British community. A valuable asset, in a flagging town, there is no excuse for it to be left in storage when it could attract visitors, contributing to an economic revival.
It’s all too easy to forget that art and artefacts are hugely beneficial for tourism; of course it costs money to create special exhibitions, and some galleries justifiably make a modest charge for such shows, whereas their ‘generic’ collections have free access. This is an obvious solution and one which should be more widely adopted in the regions.
Nevertheless, given the paucity of special shows, I think it is time to develop a national register of what is owned, and where it is, including whether it has ever been displayed.
With modern technology, this shouldn’t be difficult, since it is essential for items to be catalogued for insurance purposes: description, date, condition, value, location. Without good record-keeping, it has been all too easy for items to ‘disappear’ in the past and I often wonder, when watching Antiques Roadshow, whether some items miraculously became family heirlooms via this route!
Regrettably, some records are still painfully inadequate and I would urge local authorities to address this urgently. It would be an excellent student project if additional support is needed, and there are various schemes, including apprenticeships, to assist with funding if the business case is sufficiently strong and well argued. With the move towards ‘devolution’, this is an opportunity for joint working across regions, sharing expertise.
The purpose of the national register would be to understand exactly what is in public ownership, and the value of individual items. To make it easier, the first phase could be restricted to art, including sculpture, ceramics and furniture.
It would be helpful if the National Trust and places like Highclere and Chatsworth, as well as galleries linked to universities, would share information to maximise the potential for developing a unique network of cultural assets.
For example, by creating a single large collection of, say, Chinese porcelain or works by a particular artist, by bringing together small collections which are otherwise insignificant on their own, we could create an impressive internationally recognised visitor attraction, and important educational resource.
Secondly, there would be the potential to identify a small number of objects or pieces of art which could be sold, with receipts ring-fenced to fund extensions or new purpose-built facilities. Surely it’s better to lose a few items to the auction houses in order to release vast collections from storage by pooling resources?
These new galleries should be targeted at run-down areas (as in Kent and the West Country) where they have proved essential as an integral part of structured regeneration, as well as linked to existing spaces (including those grand houses and the NT). Redundant warehouses could find a new lease of life as galleries, possibly in partnership with the private sector, linking displays of the old with sales of the new.
And, as Harry Phibbs suggested, art could be put into secure locations accessed by the public (hospitals are actually purchasing art to aid patient wellbeing) and perhaps loaned to shopping centres and leading businesses.
To achieve this level of co-operation would be challenging, to say the least. Inevitably, protectionism would be most people’s first reaction, but it wouldn’t be one-way traffic; items would be swapped in order to create those world class collections which would enhance our wider communities. Museums could form their own networks, transferring valuables between each other and sharing management. The Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service was the first in the country to do this.
Such projects would require strong leadership and commitment (and watertight legal advice). Those authorities willing to bite the bullet and come up with a couple of pilot schemes would undoubtedly get Government support. The public sector can’t do everything itself, and leaving wonderful art and artefacts, lovingly created, to rot in storage is not doing anyone a service.
Instead of being stuck in a time warp, Isn’t it time for a fresh, creative, approach?