Don't sell Southampton short!
10th August 2009
The more I think about the City Council’s proposal to sell part of the city Art Gallery’s collection to part-finance a new Titanic exhibition centre, the more I think it is an outstandingly bad idea. It looks attractive at first sight - the Art gallery has some 3500 items in its collection, but only a small minority ever get exhibited. The image emerges of some dusty old watercolours being dragged out of the cupboard they’ve been lying in for years, given a quick wipe over, off to the auction and - bingo - the city has its money, and no harm is done.
The problem with this image is that it isn’t true, never was, and even if it was partly right, there are big implications on selling the collection anyway.
The city, it is claimed needs to raise about £5 million from art sales to bridge the gap in funding for the titanic centre. You would have to sell a huge amount of dusty old watercolours to raise anything like that amount. What you would have to do instead is sell some real gems in the collection - some pieces that people would pay good money for. And so it has proved, with the first possible items to be sold announced: a well known Victorian painting, exhibited several times in the gallery in recent years, and an even more frequently exhibited Rodin sculpture ( by the man who sculpted the famous ‘kiss’ bronze). They might raise £1 million, but would be a real loss to the collection - and more like that would be needed.
But in reality, these aren’t just items that can be sold to raise cash for heritage: they are already our city’s heritage - and indeed many pieces have been donated to the gallery or have been bought through bequests that stipulated that the money should be used to add to that heritage. I don’t imagine that many more donations or bequests will come to Southampton if it is widely thought that the city, as the fancy takes them will sell purchases off to the highest bidder.
And this view on donations and bequests is taken by most of the public galleries and museums in the country. At present, the Southampton City Art Gallery is widely known as one of the best in the country. It has an almost unrivalled collection in the south of England, and an international reputation for its exhibitions and standard of curatorship. In this context, selling off the stock is like cutting a tree down. Reputations, like new trees, then take many years to grow again. It would be quite possible that, like Bury Art Gallery, which sold a Lowry painting for a million pounds a few years ago, the loan of pictures for exhibitions would be ended, and the standing of the gallery nationally would be destroyed.
Some may think that all this is a fuss over nothing: who goes to see the pictures anyway? I think it is not just about pictures and galleries, but about Southampton: what we think of our city, and what others think of us. We have got a superb heritage in our city, from the Saxon town, the medieval walls, the Tudor house, the museum collections, and yes, our art gallery. They’re all part of what we are in the city, and all of us, particularly those in authority in the city, are just stewards for now of what we have. If we really care about the worth of Southampton, our duty is to defend it and pass it on. Selling it off is not anywhere part of the contract.
What do you think of this story? Email Alan