Stop this asset-stripping in the art world

Museums aren’t businesses and they shouldn’t be selling off their treasures to pay the electricity bill or mend the roof.

Tiffany Jenkins

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Museum directors are eyeing up the valuables on their walls as assets they could sell to raise money in these difficult economic times.

Last month, two important paintings, once on display at the Royal Cornwall Museum, were quietly auctioned at Christie’s in London. The pictures – ‘Bondage’ by Ernest Normand and ‘The Sea Maiden’ by Herbert Draper – are flamboyant pieces of Victorian erotic art. Under the hammer each commanded £1million.

They went from being on show for all to see straight into the homes of unnamed private owners, one of whom is based in America. This is the problem with selling off collections: they go out of reach from you and me.

Sir Ferrers Vyvyan, the chairman of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, which owns and manages the museum, said: ‘We are delighted with the outcome of these sales, particularly in today’s market. The reality is we have had to take some extremely hard decisions and the money realised by the sale of these paintings is a real step forward in ensuring the long-term stability of the RIC and the Royal Cornwall Museum.’

So what will the museum spend the money on? Is there a far more important work to acquire? No. They plan to place the cash in an endowment fund.

The RIC had been hoping for £3million for the two paintings, but it didn’t get that much, partly due to the rocky state of the art market. In other words, a museum sold off two significant paintings to raise money to invest, at a bad time to invest, and achieved one-third less than it had estimated. And now the art work is gone. This isn’t economising – it’s asset stripping.

Given the RIC’s track record, and the fact that it wants to raise further millions, it should be closely watched. It holds exceptional collections which reflect the patronage of Alfred de Pass, who planned to create a ‘V&A of the South West’ in the early twentieth century. It would be a shame to see this collection dismantled further.

The RIC is not the only arts institution flogging the family silver. Southampton City Council tried to sell Rodin’s sculpture ‘Crouching Woman’ and Alfred Munnings’ oil painting ‘After the Race’ in order to raise funds for a new maritime museum about the Titanic. Thankfully, after a major outcry, the sale stalled.

Selling valuable public collections is controversial, and rightly so. Until recently, there was a strong presumption against any disposal of museum objects and works of art. Indeed, national museums are only permitted to sell – or even exchange – collections in rare circumstances, such as when a work is a duplicate of another in their stores.

There is good reason for this caution: to protect the institution from the vagaries of fashion, politics and financial pressures. Museums are not businesses and it is not their job to sell off their treasures to mend the roof or pay the electricity bill. Their purpose is to conserve, research and exhibit objects and art for future generations. They should think of their collections as important artefacts and art from past human civilisations, not as objects with a price tag.

And yet in the past couple of decades there have been major shifts in museum policy, the consequences of which are now becoming all too clear. Under the Tories in the 1980s, cultural organisations were encouraged to be more entrepreneurial and to make a profit. But the real damage was done under New Labour, when they were instructed to turn into centres for social inclusion. These twin pressures of instrumental economic and social outcomes have helped to undermine important principles relating to the purpose of cultural organisations and their collections, which has meant that they no longer firmly value their curatorial role.

In the US, so concerned are arts officials about the threat of the current financial climate to the world of art that the Association of Art Museum Directors has just introduced a policy that forbids the use of funds raised by selling collections to cover museum operations. So a museum cannot sell a Picasso, for example, and then use the money to install a new restaurant or employ a few more staff.

Not so in Britain. Two years ago, the Museums’ Association, the professional body for the sector, significantly altered its policy, softening its attitude towards the protection of the collection. In the ‘Disposal Toolkit’, the MA came out and argued for the first time that financially motivated disposal was permissible in certain circumstances – not just in order to buy another work, but also to raise cash.

It is important to remember that the few disposals that have taken place were bitterly regretted years later. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery’s Collecting Policy 2003-2008 laments the sale of their South Asian and Far Eastern metalwork in the 1950s as ‘an act of irrevocable rashness’. It points out: ‘It is not only fashions that change… the society which a museum serves can also change… The metalwork would have gained greatly in relevance in view of the growing contribution of South Asian communities to modern Birmingham.’

A major disadvantage of getting rid of paintings and artefacts is the effect that it can have on donors. It will be difficult to persuade people to leave their treasured possessions to galleries and museums if they think that in the long term the objects that meant so much to them might be sold off.

Then there are cases of objects let go in ignorance of their value. The V&A once sold a set of eighteenth-century gilt wood chairs thinking they were ‘bad nineteenth-century reproductions’. They were acquired by the then king of Libya. When it was subsequently discovered that the chairs were from a set commissioned by the Venetian Doge Paolo Renier, and were of considerable interest, it was too late to try to buy them back – they had been converted into mirror frames and stools.

This is not the time to forget the true value of our collections: a historical and aesthetic resource held in care for future generations. Let’s keep the doors open to the public but closed to the salesman. Losing these treasures is too high a price to pay for short-term financial gain.

Tiffany Jenkins is an academic and cultural commentator. Visit her website here.

Previously on spiked

Tiffany Jenkins considered how to preserve the future of museums, and argued against cultural diplomacy. David Lee said Britain shouldn’t lose its marbles. Jan Bowman urged artists not to accept state funding. John Dennen wished the British Museum’s Hadrian exhibition had not tried to be so relevant. Or read more at spiked issues Arts and entertainment and Museums and galleries.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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