This week the Taxpayers Alliance produced research (which I assisted with) showing that the Government owns £3.5bn works of art. Some of it is on display  – such as this painting by Lowry, Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook, which is up on the wall at the offices of the Department for Culture Media and Sport.

But the vast majority of state owned works of art – 97 per cent – is kept in storage. That is a cultural as well as a financial scandal.

In that context it is questionable public spending priority for the state to be buying more art. Yet that is what has been happening – even in this age of “austerity”.

According to the TPA central government alone has purchased at least 122 pieces of art work since 2010 including:

  • Mel Brimfield’s 4’33” (Prepared Pianola for Roger Bannister), purchased for £40,000 in 2012-13.
  • Jim Lambie’s Metal Box (Hong Kong), purchased for £22,500 in 2013-14
  • Goshka Macuga’s Oak, purchased for £21,150 in 2010-11
  • The Boyle Family’s Chalk Cliff Study, purchased for £18,000 in 2010-11
  • Pablo Bronstein’s Design for Fireworks in the Chinese Taste, purchased for £18,000 in 2010-11

The broader question is whether the state should not merely stop buying but start selling – on a substantial scale.

Jonathan Isaby, Chief Executive of the TPA, said:

“No-one is proposing a wholesale sell-off of art owned by the government, but nonetheless the scale of the collection is staggering. Public bodies and local authorities should make an effort to display more of their art for people to enjoy, and they also need to take a good hard look at their art portfolio and think about what does and does not need to be retained.”

Selling off bequests certainly pose moral and legal complications. That is why we have this disastrous inertia of so much being locked away in vaults. Local authorities in the United Kingdom own at least 5.5 million works of art with an estimated value of more than £2 billion. Manchester City Council owned the most valuable collection, with a total value of £374 million across 46,347 pieces. 1,017 of these pieces are on display – a rate of 2.1 per cent.

North Hertfordshire District Council could not provide an exact answer as to how many pieces of art they owned but possess the largest collection of any local authority, with “over a million items”. Carlisle Council was the poorest performing authority in the country when it came to displaying the art it owns. Of the 864,100 words of art owned by the Council, only 155 – 0.02 per cent – were on display.

Certainly these bequests would be made to the nation – or to a particular local authority – with the expectation that they would not be sold. But also with the expectation that they would not languish hidden from view for decades on end.

For example in my borough of Hammersmith and Fulham  the Cecil French Bequest is worth around £18 million. It was left the council with the express wish that the paintings should be on permanent display in public libraries. It could be argued that the insurance and security costs make public display a bit too tricky. Very well. But let us not pretend that Mr French’s wishes are being honoured.

One option would be to sell such collections – then at least some people might see them. Indeed it could be sold with the condition that it be put on public display for a certain number of days a year.

Or a public body could sell some of its collection – and use some of the proceeds to finance galleries to display the rest.

Perhaps the art could be leased – that might be a viable way of securing substantial revenue.

Some might suggest this is an esoteric matter. They might point out that the Government is borrowing another £70bn this year – piled on to the National Debt of £1,488bn. Thus even if the £3.5bn of state art was all flogged off it would be a footling sum compared to the hundreds of billions of pounds worth of surplus state land. Still a billion here, a billion there. It all adds up.

Furthermore the release of millions of works of art into the daylight would provide the most astonishing cultural enrichment of our nation. Many might be of modest financial value – perhaps portraying a local scene – but nonetheless they could instill civic pride and lift the spirits with their beauty. They could be displayed in the foyers of schools and GPs surgeries. They could raise morale on a trip to the dentist. Hospitals, libraries, leisure centres, town halls. There is no shortage of places they could be displayed.