Sam Packer is the Media Campaign Manager at the TaxPayers’ Alliance
Last week, the movers and shakers of the art world came together for the farce which was the right-on, everybody wins Turner Prize ceremony. No doubt some of Britain’s biggest art collectors were in attendance. But after this night of bohemian celebration, let’s not forget one type of art collector who wasn’t represented: local authorities.
In a new paper, we unveiled the 1.9 million size of the hidden hoard of council artwork. At a total value of £1.9 billion, this local authority treasure trove dwarfs the collections of many private galleries and enthusiastic art-lovers.
Now the principle at stake here is not whether government bodies ought to provide art. Even in conservative circles, many will quite reasonably defend councils’ keeping a historic town heirloom or owning the odd town hall portrait. But the impressive size of this multi-billion pound collection should lead us to ask whether these town hall galleries are delivering value for money for taxpayers.
Given that cries of underfunding are consistent across local government, egregious waste and inexplicable largesse are particularly deserving of damnation. In local authority art collections, there is plenty of this to be condemned. Some councils seem to have built these collections regardless of apparent austerity or unpleasant council tax rises. Frankly, one would expect acquiring artwork to be relatively low down the list of council priorities.
It seems somewhat preposterous therefore for councils to insist that they cannot cope with reduced funding at the same time as buying artworks. But that is exactly what Bassetlaw District Council did between 2016 and 2019, purchasing 201 pieces, more than double next-placed Brighton and Hove. Leeds council, whose leader has repeatedly talked about the impact of austerity, still felt able to purchase 61 pieces between 2016 and 2019.
Yet the statistic which stands out most is that less than a third of all artworks owned by local authorities are accessible for the general public.
Certain Conservatives would be right to say that art provision draws on the spirit of the founding fathers of local government, like Joseph Chamberlain. The idea of making available cultural amenities which would otherwise be inaccessible follows the logic of his public works programmes, and art has a long tradition in British local government. Unfortunately, hundreds of councils don’t seem to be actually doing this, instead allowing art to gather dust in storage. Note too that expensive art has to be insured, meaning that artworks not being enjoyed by the public can still be a continuous cost to taxpayers.
What is the purpose of “public” ownership of art which cannot be experienced by the public? That is a question that should be asked of the likes of Manchester City Council, which has the nation’s most impressive council art collection with a hoard worth just under £370 million, of which just under 8 per cent is on public display. Other council curators, like Leeds and Bristol City Councils, have comparatively measly collections at £146.5 million and £117 million, but also display just five per cent and 13 per cent of their respective hoards.
It is not the case that these low display rates are merely an affliction of large cities with big galleries. Boston Council permanently displays 16 of the 5,518 artworks in their collection; Chesterfield borough council 1 of their 5,336; and Islington manages 6 of their 26,376. All embarrassingly low.
But Worcestershire County Council and Harlow Council both manage to display the entirety of their collections, and even the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have 98 per cent of their £20 million hoard on display. Lincoln city council displays every single one of its 102 works. This is not a question of cities versus shires or, indeed, party political affiliation.
The variation between councils suggests that it is a failure of over-ambition. Unsurprisingly, the councils that have the fewest mystery masterpieces are the ones which manage to show the highest proportion to ratepayers. North Somerset Council, for example, manages to get both of their Gainsboroughs on display for residents. It might be an old-fashioned attitude in this era of spendthrift politics, but it transpires that more limited ambitions in terms of provision allow for greater efficiency and a better deal for taxpayers.
Council hoarding of artwork is reflective of an unhealthy attitude in the public sector which is all too common in the UK. Public sector bodies, in this case, local councils, are far too often obsessed with their big ambitions rather than the grind of providing good quality and sensible service provision. There’s nothing wrong with modest but achievable ambitions. Voters won’t punish politicians for thinking small. It’s fair to say that most ratepayers would prefer a single sculpture of a local hero that they could see, than a thousand Michelangelo’s Davids hidden in a council warehouse.
Publicly owned property is taxpayer-owned property. But if the taxpayer cannot access it, then in practice, it is merely property we bought for the benefit of town hall art-lovers. When councils are showing such a small part of the artwork they have to the people who own it, that is, unfortunately, the picture they paint.