Over the last few months there have been more local councils announcing ‘savings’ in their arts budgets or the ‘re-purposing’ of gallery spaces, some of them grab headlines for a day, some run on and on and some are barely noticed. Leicester based artist and curator, Eric Rosoman examines three of them.
Newcastle City Council, which briefly grabbed the headlines with ‘100% cuts to Arts budgets’, Leicester City Council with it’s ‘Revamp of art gallery set to start’ and (online) Tower Hamlets sparking off ongoing articles in National media and flash-mobs by attempting to sell a Henry Moore sculpture.
I’ve read a few council documents over the years, OSMB reports (Overview & Scrutiny Management Board), IIA’s (Integrated Impact Assessment), Cabinet reports and minutes. They can be pretty impenetrable, full of management speak and worse still, local government speak. But one of the good things about having worked in a local government run gallery is that I can get the gist of what they’re trying not to say, they can be as circumlocutory or obtuse as their press releases are spun, but who can blame them for using the word savings instead of cuts?
Newcastle City Council is proposing to cut its funding to all external arts organisation’s by 100% and its contribution to Laing Art Gallery by 50%[i]. For organisations such as Globe Gallery, Isis Arts and Side Gallery the City Council’s investment represents a large chunk of their funding with the majority of the remainder being provided by Arts Council England. Laing Gallery is part of TWAM, (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums) that itself is funded by the five Tyne and Wear councils (Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland), as well as DCMS and ACE. If Newcastle reduces its share of funding for the Laing Art Gallery, it sets a precedent for the other councils to follow suit, indeed it would be hard for them not to. Also part of TWAM, but not explicitly mentioned in the proposal as they are located outside Newcastle itself, are Hatton Gallery (which includes Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbarn wall), the Shipley Art Gallery, and South Shields Museum and Art Gallery, it’s unclear if Newcastle’s reduced funding to TWAM would directly effect these galleries or not.
Kurt Schwitters. Mertzbarn Wall at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle
In the council’s proposal it states:
“Due to the scale of the proposed savings, the service will look at significant reductions in management and administration, reducing opening hours to save on staffing and utility costs, reducing outreach and education work, charging for some exhibitions and elements of the permanent galleries and increasing/expanding charges to schools and to the general public for specific activities. Ways of compensating for lost revenue will be explored, including the re-purposing of spaces within existing premises to generate income and maximising the income from venue hire…”[ii]
It’s always good to see the work savings used instead of cuts, it makes it so much easier to believe that they’re doing the right thing. But the effects of these cuts are not fully spelled out, they will look at reducing opening hours, charging to see exhibitions etc., but don’t indicate the scale of these changes that would be needed and the re-purposing of spaces is management speak for changing spaces to accommodate venue hire which scares me (I’ll come back to this later). The current proposals are just outline plans setting out where they plan to reduce or increase spending and income. Next, they will publish more detail, which jobs will be cut, which galleries closed or reconfigured, how much they plan to generate through venue hire, but this will not include external organisations so by it’s nature it will not reveal all the details of what will be lost.
In a recent conversation with an Arts Council officer I was recommended to get partnership funding, it was the first thing they said. Local Council’s are often the main funder after ACE so a withdrawal of funding by them can easily end in loss of ACE funding too. In 2011/12 Side Gallery, Isis Arts and Globe Gallery received a total of £172,556[iii] investment from ACE for their artistic programmes, development and, in Globe Gallery’s case, to refurbish and develop their new art venue. Newcastle City Council withdrawing their funding at this point is that kind of thing that can leave a small arts organisation like Globe at tipping point and is also the kind of thing that doesn’t inspire the confidence of ACE. Would a major funder look to fill the gap of another funder at a time when they themselves are short on funds? Or would they cut their losses believing that the organisation was no longer financially viable? Alison Clark-Jenkins, The Arts Council’s regional director, has said: “There's a line in the sand – we cannot be the only cultural funder in Newcastle” but goes on in her Guardian blog to say: ”There's an energy emerging in Newcastle, as it will all over the country: the fight for culture is very much on.”[iv]
There was a press release from Leicester City Council in late October with the headline: ‘Revamp of art gallery set to start’. It begins with: “Gallery 6 will be closed to the public from Monday to undergo the revamp…” And ends with: “The Victorian art gallery will re-open at the end of March 2013.”[v]
All sounds fine. But then why has it gone from the functionary ‘Gallery 6’ (Its official name) to ‘The Victorian Gallery’ (Its nickname). Well there is more to it than the official press release. The release does state that the refurbishment (costing £300,000, 50% ACE money and 50% Council money) is being used ‘to improve the facilities for weddings, concerts and private hire’, a lot of money to spend but if it brings in more money through hires then that’s good. Although if you look at the Executive Decision Report on the council website you find more information: \"It is proposed that the redisplay will recreate the more traditional Victorian art gallery look and feel, rather than a mix of traditional and contemporary art. This will result in contemporary art being removed from the gallery.”[vi]
To give a context, New Walk Museum & Art Gallery is the only dedicated facility for displaying art. Leicester has a few artist run spaces, a few hire spaces and Leicester University’s Embrace Arts currently has a corridor/balcony space and hopes to develop a £1million gallery. The City Gallery which was run by Leicester City Council was closed in 2009. The museum has three permanent art spaces, the Picasso Gallery, The German Expressionism Gallery and Gallery 6. There is also a small (8m x 4m) gallery off Gallery 6 that often shows small specialist touring collections (currently a George Grosz exhibition from Hayward Gallery), and two large temporary exhibition spaces that feature a mixture of shows from DNA to the (Tate/National Galleries of Scotland’s touring) ARTIST ROOMS, from the Open Exhibition to Suits and Sari’s. Gallery 6 is the permanent gallery of works in Leicester Museums collection featuring works by J. M. W. Turner, Lord Frederic Leighton, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro alongside Francis Bacon, Peter Doig, Bridget Riley, Paula Rego and Ben Nicholson to name a few. The reasoning behind the decision to remove contemporary art from the gallery is to “make the gallery more visually appealing for commercial use and weddings” according to Councillor Piara Singh Clair, assistant city mayor for heritage, leisure and sport. In the Leicester Mercury he reported as saying that ‘A number of contemporary art works will be removed under the scheme, but … none of them would be lost’ and that \"This is about making the museum and the gallery more attractive.”[vii] Whereas the Museums own wedding brochure still states: “Showing the brightest and best of the permanent collection, key works range from powerful 20th century artists such as Francis Bacon and Peter Doig to the Old Masters.”[viii]
I have to admit that a shiver went down my spine. Contemporary art is not going on display in order to make the gallery more ‘attractive’ for commercial use and weddings. There are a number of worrying things about this. Firstly, once an artwork goes ‘off display’, (when it’s not being rotated in order to display more of the collection, which is often done to help conserve the works,) there is much greater likelihood of it being considered for sale. This is essentially what happened to Henry Moore’s ‘Old Flo’ in Tower Hamlets (See online section of this essay.) I am not a conspiracy theorist, but those who are - might conclude that it was a deliberate stepping stone to their sale.
There is also (obviously) the fact that taking out the contemporary art gives a distorted view, not only of Leicester’s own collection, but of art history as a whole. Imagine if art history did end at Queen Victoria’s death in 1901: There would be no Duchamp, Van Gogh, Bacon, Rego, Kahlo, Hockney, Deakin, Freud, Hirst, Price… Love them or hate them they are all part of the history of art and are as vital to that history as Tintoretto, Turner or Stubbs.
Leicester has a few really great modern/contemporary works, Peter Doig’s Concrete Cabin, 1991–2, being one of them and Francis Bacon’s Lying Figure, 1959, being another. Lying figure was purchased direct from Burlington Galleries after Bacon’s first exhibition there. It was one of the rare times that a work was bought directly from a dealer and was one of a number of new works produced after Bacon had spent some time in St. Ives, an odd place for city loving Bacon to go and then the hotbed of the militant abstract wing of British Art. New Walk Museum’s Lying Figure, 1959, is a key work in the development of Bacon’s career and symbolises the transition from his more shocking 1950’s works to his more contemplative later work. Key works such as this should be on show within the context of the old masters and other modern & contemporary works.
Back in the 1940/50’s it was the (then contemporary) German Expressionism collection as well as the old masters that inspired a young Anthony d’Offay to get passionate about art when ‘being dumped’ at the museum by his mother. The Times Higher Education article published shortly after the ARTIST ROOMS: Gerhard Richter exhibition opened in 2010 says: “D'Offay's hope is that exposure to the work will somehow improve life chances. That notion is born of his bedrock belief that art can be a source of personal transformation, even salvation, if only we can get at it from an early age. Such belief is derived from his childhood experiences in Leicester: \"Some of us have tough parents and difficult backgrounds. As an adolescent, I would have been lost without literature and museums.\" Parked in the Leicester Museum while his mother did the shopping, young Anthony developed a syncretic passion for Egyptian mummies, German Expressionism and Francis Bacon. He was hooked and began buying and selling while studying at the University of Edinburgh.”[ix]You could argue that the mix of old and contemporary art at New Walk Museum at the time resulted in the whole ARTIST ROOMS collection.
If there is a need to generate income in galleries and museums there needs to be a balance between public access and private use, which begs the question, where do you draw the line? Firstly, if the outlay to make this gallery suitable for hire was £300,000 then you would want to recover the money and at the museums stated hire for wedding ceremonies at £490 that would take 613 hires (there were six weddings in the space last year.) At two hours each it’s more than one hundred and fifty (8 hour) days that the gallery would be closed to the public. During Leicester City Council’s ‘Heritage, Leisure & Sport Scrutiny Commission’ meeting in September the minutes state: \"The Chair requested more information on the business [case] that had been prepared for increased commercial activities at the museum. She questioned whether there was a demand for more weddings or more commercial activities...\"
\"Members expressed concerns that an increase in the number of weddings would results in parts of the museum being closed to members of the public for longer periods.\"
\"Strong concerns were expressed that there were no reports, facts or figures included with the agenda. More information was requested, including details of the targets, implications if those targets were not reached and costs of employing the commercial manager. Concerns were made that insufficient information had been given to enable the Commission to scrutinise the decision. In addition, in future, the Commission would not be able to assess whether the strategy was successful because without such information, it would not be possible to measure any achievements.\"[x]
But despite these concerns it would appear that the decision to go ahead with the plan had already been made. The minutes start with \"The Assistant Mayor explained that the Executive had given approval to the scheme to refurbish New Walk Museum\", the scrutiny commission are powerless to change things.
On the face of it, making a gallery space more suitable for hiring out to external clients and generate an income sounded like a good idea, that is until you look at the practicalities of doing it and the effects of reconfiguring gallery spaces and collections. As the information stands it looks bad, £300k to remove contemporary art from permanent display and make the space more ‘attractive’ for hire. But weddings have already increased from six last year to nine so far this year, and if the balance of hires to public opening was struck right there could be a steady income that would help run the museum and art gallery in the future. I’d be in favour of evening hires for events, screenings, receptions that could bring in good money and actually increase the number of people that get to see the artworks. Now they just need to keep the post 1901 / modern / contemporary art on display too.
New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester
Tower Hamlets has been in the news more than Newcastle’s 100% arts cuts. It’s selling ‘Old Flo’, Henry Moore’s tribute to the east end blitz survivors, for a reported £20million.
A bit of background: ‘Old Flo’ as she is commonly know (or ‘Draped Seated Woman, 1957-8) was bought by London County Council at cost (£6000) in 1962 to be placed in the new Stifford Estate in Stepney, when the estate was demolished in 1997 she was moved ‘temporarily’ to Yorkshire Sculpture Park where it’s been on display ever since. Pat Hardy, Curator of Paintings, Prints and Drawings at the Museum of London has written a good contextualisation of the work on the Museum of London website, how it came to be in Tower Hamlets and Moore’s first hand experience of Blitz London.[xi]
There have been Old Flo flash mobs outside the council offices, a #flogo competition on twitter (to redesign the tower hamlets logo) and of course a petition[xii], but it’s still being sold. The mayor of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman (independent) has made an executive decision and although his cabinet seems to object it’s due to go ahead at Christies in February (you can probably expect another flash mob). It appears that a decision to sell it was taken before the report[xiii] on whether to sell or relocate it was written by Heather Bonfield (the Interim Service Head Culture, Learning and Leisure Services), although it’s unclear who’s idea it was. It’s equally likely to have come from the Mayor wanting to look good by selling some elitist art that people in tower hamlets would have to travel 180miles up the M1 to see, or the Council’s Head of Culture, thinking that either the sculpture goes or it’s something else in her budget. However the decision was made, in the report on whether to sell or relocate the sculpture, it seems clear that there was more effort put into the selling option. Their own scrutiny report unanimously voted in favour of a further review by cabinet stating that: ‘Insufficient consideration has been given to alternative options for returning the sculpture to the borough…’. And particularly stingingly: ‘The officer advice on this issue was disappointing, the report produced for the decision was inadequate and rightly caused concern that a decision taken on it would be open to challenge. Local institutions had not been contacted for their interest or advice on hosting the sculpture and the position over insurance was unclear. No mention was made of advice taken, other than that of Christies; giving the impression that only the sale of the statute was seriously being considered. No detail was included on usual practice on council insurance needs or why the conclusion had been reached, causing further concern regarding veracity. The reports own risk analysis warned of the issues, currently being faced by the Council, if the case was not dealt with correctly.”[xiv]
There are some discrepancies in the case too. Two years ago the council unanimously voted to bring back the sculpture and site it in the borough, they called for an options report but this never came, now there is an Options Appraisal weighing up whether to sell it or relocate it back to Tower Hamlets. The report and Heather Bonfield’s comments at a review meeting reiterate that the sculpture is uninsurable through the council’s insurers and others, (but that this is being rechecked), others have said it’s insurable for as little as £2000 per year. The report emphasises the security of the sculpture, with two people convicted just this week for stealing a Henry Moore sundial and plinth and selling them as scrap metal (for a total of £228.60[xv]), security is a serious issue but the Museum of Docklands (part of the Museum of London) has stated that not only can ‘Old Flo’ be sited there, accessible to all, but it can also be insured[xvi]. The site is on the edge of Canary Wharf behind vehicle barriers and with security cameras and guards. Tower Hamlets and Canary Wharf were previously (according to the report) in negotiations to site the sculpture there but apparently an agreement could not be reached, there was no mention of negotiations with the Museum of Docklands, Queen Mary and Westfield College (University of London), or others who have indicated an interest in siting it for public access.
Because the sculpture was bought by London County Council, when this and the Greater London Council dissolved into separate boroughs its assets were also dissolved to the boroughs. But appears that land and buildings were treated separately from works of Art, as an Art Fund spokesperson states: “The council would have surely addressed this before commissioning a sale through Christie's, and should be easily and quickly able to provide evidence of ownership.”[xvii] Jill Bell, Head of the Council’s Legal Service, has been asked whether the necessary legal documentation was in place to sell the work and reported that it was. As things stand (at time of writing) it appears that the Art Fund has now got Tower Hamlets to confirm that they will not try and move the sculpture until it’s legal title has been confirmed. The Art Fund layers, Farrer & Co., claim that the London Residuary Body (LRB) is the rightful owner, although this itself seems a little grey. The LRB existed between 1985 and 1996 to dissolve the assets of the Greater London Council to the boroughs. A quick non-expert look at the ’The London Residuary Body (Transfer of Property etc) Order 1990. Schedule 4 Statues etc.’[xviii] reveals that only nine statues are listed and were all ceded to the areas where they are cited namely The Council of the City of Westminster & The Common Council (The City of London). There appears to be no mention of any other cultural assets in these legislative documents of the LRB, and the Local Government Art of 1985[xix] (which provided for the dissolution of the GLC) only states that the The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England (English Heritage) could acquire them. A grey area is putting it mildly but the ball is in Tower Hamlets court for them to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Old Flo is theirs to sell.
On a side note, Tower Hamlets statement of accounts 2011-12[xx] they list four items as heritage assets (listing only those worth over £50k), one painting, two statues and civic regalia. The three works of art are estimated at £4,410,000. So it’s unclear exactly when and where the figure of £20million came from. On 8th November (after the report) a working model (72cm high) of Old Flo was sold at Sotherby’s New York for £1.38million (12% below it’s top estimate)[xxi]. The statement of accounts also states: “The Council has held these heritage assets for a number of years pre-dating 2010 and does not hold these assets for financial gain, so it is unlikely that they will be sold.” This unfortunately reminds me of Leicester City Council’s Councillor Piara Singh Clair stating that: "None of the work will be lost with these changes."[xxii]
In the Tower Hamlets Mayor’s blog[xxiii] he defends the sale and says: “Every penny raised from an auction of the sculpture will be ring-fenced to benefit the borough as a whole”. Using the money raised for anything but benefitting the borough would be fraud, so that isn’t ring fencing. Using the money raised to develop a gallery with an educational program to benefit the ‘poverty stricken’ borough would be ring fencing.
All local and national governments seem to be cutting funding to the Arts and this effects smaller organization more regularly than the mega ones, it hits the people who have the least access (through social or economic reasons) to the Arts more than whose with the most access. The actions of local authorities are rarely as apparent as Tower Hamlets attempt to sell of Old Flo and the effects more nuanced than the headlines of 100% cuts. But sales for short term financial gain (or less deficit), cutting funding to external arts organisations and restructuring galleries and museums in order to make financial gain through hires has much more than a financial effect on a council’s balance sheet. Death of culture by a thousand cuts takes time, the effects are going to be long term, have a very broad base and the immediate local financial savings will be minimal at best.
My overall fear is that when Newcastle City Council state that they are exploring “the re-purposing of spaces within existing premises to generate income and maximising the income from venue hire…”[xxiv] They will end up removing works, as Leicester City Council are doing, to make “the museum and the gallery more attractive”[xxv], and then eventually, when the artworks have been out of sight for a while, they sell them like, ‘Old Flo’ with Tower Hamlets, “to benefit the borough as a whole”! [xxvi].
The UK Treasury say that by 2017 around 50% of new jobs will be coming from the creative sector[xxvii], it already employs a million more than the financial sector, I would argue that by cutting funding to the arts you destabilize the ecology of the creative sector as a whole. Our art galleries, theatres, dance studios are both the crèches and R&D centers for the creative sector – cut them at your peril.
Eric Rosoman is an artist & curator based in Leicester and runs The Great Central Gallery & Studios.