Revealed: Council art treasures we’re not allowed to see

Alex Robertson in the Leeds City Art Gallery store room
Alex Robertson in the Leeds City Art Gallery store room
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COUNCILS have been challenged to let the public see more of their art collections or consider selling artworks after research showed only a tiny fraction was put on display.

Of the 5.5 million items, worth an estimated £2.3bn, held by local authorities, only around three per cent is on public display.

Leeds City Council had the highest value art collection in the region, worth £150m, according to a Freedom of Information request by the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Of the 30,754 items, 1,118 are displayed, or around 3.5 per cent.

Chief executive Jonathan Isaby said: “Yorkshire’s councils are around the national average when it comes to how much of their artwork is on display, but nonetheless the small amount available to the public will stagger taxpayers.

“Councils must make more of an effort to let the public see the art and also have a proper discussion about whether there are some pieces of art, currently gathering dust, that could be offered for sale to see if there is interest; the money could then be used to support frontline services.”

However, Hull Council leader Steve Brady condemned the pressure group as “right wing zealots that would strip the country of anything of cultural worth”.

The second highest value art collection is owned by Sheffield City Council (7,241 artworks, estimated worth £58.5m); York’s collection was valued at £6.2m; while Hull, which had 10,437 items, 275 of which are on display, had an estimated value of £3.5m.

Government art is worth even more at £3.5bn, according to the research. And despite “austerity” the government has bought at least £361,324 of art since 2010, including a £40,000 self-playing piano.

Researchers found that the most valuable item of all was Henry VIII’s armour for field and tournament, valued at £53.55m. It was bought by the Royal Armouries in 1649.

Arts Council England – the Government body dedicated to promoting the arts – owns more than 7,700 artworks but has just 859 on display. Of the 201.030 works owned by The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, just 876, 0.4 per cent of the total, were on display.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance said: “Much of this art may have been bequeathed to the government specifically to be put on public display and selling it off would be inappropriate. However, at a time when savings need to be made across the board, it’s important public bodies assess what they do and do not need to hold on to and act accordingly. They may also wish to consider loaning much of the artwork held in storage to schools or local community centres.”

Hull’s main showcase for art, the Ferens Art Gallery, closed last weekend for a £4.5m upgrade ahead of hosting City of Culture in 2017. The 2,500 artworks are in storage.

Coun Brady said: “We can’t flog any painting off and use it to keep a swimming pool open because in Hull the artworks are owned by the Ferens trust and any money received from a sale would go back into the trust.”

And he disputed the idea that very few artworks were on display, saying some were out on loan to other galleries, while paintings were rotated, adding: “We are not going to hang them in a public lavatory as they have to be in a secure place.”

Leeds’s lead member for museums and galleries Coun Brian Selby said the collection at Leeds Art Gallery had been described as probably one of the best of British 20th century art outside London.

He added: “We have no intention of selling any of it off. We’ve got over half a million items in our care with much on display over our nine sites, and certainly more than the three per cent suggested.

“We work hard to ensure collections are displayed on rotation or as part of exhibitions. We also loan items locally, in the UK and across the world. Leeds is also home to one the country’s best picture libraries so people can display and enjoy art at home.”