UK museums face a “shocking” state of affairs, the Princeton-based, British historian David Cannadine writes in his report “Why Collect?,” which was published on Thursday. The British state now spends less on culture than France, Denmark, Hungary or Latvia, he points out.
Cannadine’s downbeat report on museum collecting concludes that there are “no substitutes for the increased government support for our museums and galleries,” stressing that it is “urgently needed.” The implications for collecting are stark. Only half of the UK’s museums and galleries have money to make acquisitions, and “they often failed to obtain the art or the objects they sought, either because they lacked sufficient funds, or because the prices were too high.”
Success stories during the hard times museums face in an era of central and local government cuts are highlighted—along with a “cautionary tale” of local politicians deaccessioning a museum’s star antiquity to raise money.
Like the planned sale of paintings from the Berkshire Museum, the controversial sale in 2014 of an ancient Egyptian sculpture from a local museum in the English Midlands was condemned by professional museum bodies. But unlike in the US where the board was behind the decision, in the UK local politicians and an aristocrat decided to sell the statue of Sekhemka at Christie’s in London. It went for more than £15 million (then around $24 million) to an unknown buyer, possibly from the US. The sale raised around £8 million ($11 million) for the local authority in Northampton, while around £6 million ($8.4 million) went to Lord Northampton, the descendant of its aristocratic donor in the late 19th century.
The shadow of further sales hangs over UK museums. “Some museums and galleries that are under local authority control have been pressured into selling works from their collections, with the aim of using the proceeds to alleviate the strain on municipal finances, or for other municipal projects, as at Bury, Buxton and Croydon,” the report notes.
Among the success stories cited is the Folkestone Triennial on the south coast of England. Launched in 2008, the port in Kent now has 27 works of contemporary public art acquired from or lent by leading international artists, including Christian Boltanski, Spencer Finch, Cornelia Parker, Richard Wilson and Yoko Ono. The project is funded by a charitable trust set up by Kent-based philanthropist and property developer Roger De Haan. Planned acquisitions from the third edition of the triennial last fall, which included work by Antony Gormley, could drive that number up to 40 works dotted around the town.
But in nearby Eastbourne, also on the south coast of England, the Towner Art Gallery exemplifies the feast and famine of funding in the UK. In 2009, it moved to an £8.5 million ($12 million) new home designed by the late architect Rick Mather, adding works by Tacita Dean, Olafur Eliasson, Anya Gallaccio, and Wolfgang Tillmans, among others, to its collection. Read more