With austerity the name of the game, should the UK's public sector be holding onto £3.5bn-worth of art?

Jonathan Isaby
Mel Brimfield’s 4’33” - one of several art purchases made by the government since 2010 (Source: Department for Culture, Media and Sport)
Nobody begrudges the public sector owning a certain amount of art.
However, the size of the collection is itself staggering. TaxPayers’ Alliance research released today shows that it consists of some eight million pieces, worth more than £3.5bn, with local authorities alone owning more than two million pieces.
Most concerning, however, is that only three per cent of that art is actually on display to the public. That’s a sizable archive.
Somewhat worryingly, a lot of local authorities had no idea how much art they actually own, or how much it is worth. North Hertfordshire District Council - not necessarily one that regularly hits the headlines - were unable to say anything other than the fact they had a collection of “over a million items.” Reassuring, eh?
It’s also interesting to note that the government’s central arts service has continued to buy art work since 2010 – despite the chancellor’s necessary focus on making savings across the board.
Among the £380,000-odd worth of purchases made since 2010 is Mel Brimfield’s 4’33”, a pianola which plays a rather dissonant tune to commemorate Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, purchased for £40,000.
It is legitimate to ask whether, with austerity being the name of the game, all of these purchases are truly delivering value for money.
Now, nobody is proposing a wholesale sell off of all of the art – some of which will have been bequeathed or gifted to certain public bodies - but it is surely reasonable to ask whether all of these items should be retained. Some authorities have as few as 0.02 per cent of all their artwork on display to the public, which does rather raise the question of what use the collection has if it is only gathering dust in storage?
Public bodies and local authorities simply must make more of an effort to display more of their art for people to enjoy, for instance by loaning more of it out to community centres or local businesses.
And it’s not just art that we need to look at.
Earlier this year, another TaxPayers’ Alliance research project showed that local authorities own vast assets right across the country – from golf courses to pubs to, in one memorable case in Scotland, a cheese factory. Arguments came back that these were assets appreciating in value, but is it really appropriate for local authorities to hoard them? We would argue not in many cases.
The public sector has a role to play in preserving Britain’s artistic heritage, but that’s not a reason not to look at the possibility of using some of the assets to fund frontline services. With a budget deficit of more than £60bn, nothing can be off the table.

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