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Free admission and no deaccessioning – holy cows for Britain’s national museums?

The British Museum regularly makes much of the fact that the Elgin Marbles in their collection can be seen free of charge – but never enters into a debate about whether this is really to everyone’s benefit or not. The admission to the Acropolis Museum for instance is set at a level that it is easily affordable to most, yet this is somehow automatically seen by the British Museum as a bad thing.

Brian Sewell is not someone who is generally seen as a friend of the campaign for reunification of the Parthenon Marbles [1] looked in previous articles at what the price of free admission to museums is [2] – and whether resources could be better utilised across the culture sector if charges were introduced.

He now looks further, at whether some deaccessioning [3] should be allowed. Traditionally, the UK has had very strict laws in this regard [4] compared to the US, but there are arguments for allowing museums to refine their collections & reduce the cost of storing worthless artefacts.

Evening Standard [5]

It’s time to sacrifice some sacred cows
By Brian Sewell

The great (but not necessarily good) artists who put themselves forward as spokesmen for their profession have this year been very loud in their objection to cuts in state funding for themselves, for galleries, museums and all other institutions of the “creative industries” in which their work is exhibited. To these august orators and signatories of open letters in the press, their art is a sacred cow never to be fed short rations, never to be slaughtered; to others, however, they — and never mind their art — are fat cats in feather beds, or pigs with snouts in troughs, and short rations must be borne by them as well as by the rest of us.

Both views have some merit but neither represents the truth. Those of us who hold the middle view see the nation’s crisis as one from which the arts must not be exempt — we cannot go on fiddling while Rome burns — but must survive it in a fitter state than now. Heaven-sent may not be quite the suitable term, but the crisis has brought us an unexpected opportunity for radical revision of the way we run and fund the arts and we should take advantage of it to think what has hitherto been quite unthinkable.

Consider the ICA, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, founded in 1947 to provide London with a propaganda base from which, with furious energy, its members could provoke the Tate into new avenues. Two decades on, this pioneering function had been all but usurped by art dealers, yet, with all its prime objectives achieved, supported by an Arts Council award (now of some £1.4 million a year), the functionally redundant ICA drifted on and on into its current lethargic afterlife. With contemporary art on view ad nauseam in all the Tates, the Serpentine, White-chapel, South London, Camden and Fourth Plinth, with even the doors of the British Museum, National and National Portrait Galleries flung open for it, what need have we of an ICA?

Consider INIVA, the Institute of New International Visual Arts, which receives some £1 million annually, another major client of the Arts Council, founded in 1994 to promote the art of almost anyone not ethnically British.

Twenty years ago, that may belatedly have been a worthy aim, but with Kapoor, Shonibare and Ofili now all honoured millionaires whose work has been exhibited in major national galleries, won major prizes and received major international commissions and acclaim, it seems an absurd, and now unfair, political correctitude that has no place in art. With its aims achieved, surely INIVA too should be shut down?

Should we dispense with the Arts Council itself? At first a worthy institution nourishing the nation’s cultural interest in the austere years after the war, its authority has long since been corrupted by the ambitions of its bureaucrats, its increasingly narrow orthodoxies and the back-scratching buddy-boy activities of the Arts Councillors themselves, too many of whom have enjoyed huge financial benefit from their appointment, both directly through commissions and indirectly through the receipt of grants to the bodies for which they work. Anyone who has analysed the accounts of the Arts Council since the chairmanship of Lord Goodman (1965-72) must be sickened by the evidence of its grants to madcap proposals and their proposers, some in the many thousands, some in the few hundreds, some so regularly annual that the recipients could bank on them as untaxed income. From these, there has been no worthy consequence and often no consequence at all — none of the promised photographs or paintings, none of the promised cultural exchanges, none of the exhibitions. To this extravagant waste the Council has always had a ready response — the doctrine of the artist’s right to fail. Some took the cash and did not even try.

Arts Councillors have seemed oblivious of the perils of conflicting interest — one has positively courted scandal this very autumn.

Diran Adebayo, a Councillor for the six years from October 2004 to October 2010, recently received an Arts Council grant of £10,165 to help him write a novel — a grant to which the Charity Commissioners (the Council is one of our largest charities) objected, declaring that it must be repaid. He refused. Adebayo has a cousin, Mojisola, a playwright who has received five Council grants amounting to £70,413; and a brother, Dotun, of X Press, has had three grants totalling £57,990. The award of these sums may have been entirely proper, but the stink of bias and nepotism hangs heavy over them, and the Council’s admission of “insufficient checks” in its system must undermine our confidence. How typical is this over how long a period?

To keep the Arts Council clean, no Councillor should be in any way connected with the funded arts, in part receipt of a grant, or likely to be in expectation of one. They should be there only to consider the virtue of a proposal and its potential benefit to the taxpayer in terms both of culture and, if the arts are to be taken seriously as cultural industries, our economic prosperity.

But we should go further. We should scrap it, at least as far as the visual arts are concerned. The overwhelming majority of the population will be not one whit affected — they care nothing for the extremes of contemporary art and form no real audience for it other than as a freak show. Nor will most working artists be affected; most who paint or sculpt for a living, selling their work through suburban and rural galleries (there is hardly a toehold for them in central London), have never had any exposure through the Arts Council, never any access to its grants — yet these are the majority, derided and ignored by it. Only intellectually fraudulent pseuds and artists who are rich and super-rich — and indirectly their dealers — will feel the pinch, for these are they who most benefit from Arts Council exhibitions and commissions.

The Arts Council has been superfluous ever since the establishment of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It does nothing that could not be better done by a handful of civil servants taking advice from consultants with no axe to grind, honest types who, for nothing more than occasional sandwiches and coffee, would thrash the wheat from the chaff. It no longer makes sense to maintain the arm’s length principle — unwisely accepted by Jeremy Hunt, the current minister — that now apportions half a billion a year to one bunch of buddies to give to another. For so much taxpayers’ cash, only a government office should be responsible. I believe that the Arts Council’s business could be properly run by no more than a dozen devoted and enthusiastic civil servants acting on the informed advice of unpaid consultants, an efficient machine not weighed down by obligations to too many friends.

We must, however, do more than dissolve the Arts Council. We must consider de-accessioning, the pruning of museum and gallery collections. To this the response is usually hysterical. We seem to believe that everything in museums is sacred, its presence never to be questioned — but even the National Gallery has paintings that are in so abysmal a condition they cannot be retrieved, or are well below international museum quality, that add nothing to our knowledge and give no aesthetic pleasure. Why keep them? Museums and galleries must, to some extent, serve the same purpose as reserve reference libraries, must hold examples of the forgotten and obscure, but every gallery in the country could benefit from shedding dross and duplicates; every gallery has in its stores an accumulation of possessions that are never to be found on view. A friend who gave her collection of French fashion drawings to the V&A asked me to enquire when some of it might go on view; the answer was “not until we’ve catalogued it, and at our present rate, that will be in 200 years”. Had she sold it at Christie’s, she would not have died in penury.

To raise funds we must never take the easy option of selling the best — that is always a mistake, one of many spectacularly made by the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight, Merseyside, in 1958, a disaster that still haunts the argument for de-accession, the decisions then made on grounds of fashion rather than quality. If we prune only the worst, the weakest, the irrelevant, then cash enough might be released to replace them with a masterpiece or close gaps in collections.

We should even consider charging for admission to museums. This is my cherished sacred cow, but for the moment I am prepared to sacrifice it, at least until the nation’s debts are paid — then we should re-establish the principle of free entry. But there is another point; I cannot recall a museum in mainland Europe to which access is free. Did I not pay to enter the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum, the Uffizi and the Vatican, and every gallery from Aschaffenburg to Zagreb? Why then are we so foolish as to give free access to the foreign visitors who mob our great museums? Has the British Museum any notion of the nationality of its visitors? If half the five million a year are foreign and not paying a fiver to get in, that is a loss of £12.5 million — extravagant hospitality — lost again at the National Gallery and Tate Modern. Can we afford to be so generous? If we cannot find an inoffensive way of charging foreign visitors at the door, then let us levy, everywhere, a local culture tax on every hotel bill for the benefit of museums and galleries in the region.

The one aspect of the arts that must be protected almost at any cost is the preservation of the heritage. Even in these wretched times, we must not allow major works of art to leave the country. Once gone they are as irretrievable as Holbein’s only undoubted portrait of Henry VIII, sold to Baron Thyssen by the then Earl Spencer in the pit of the Depression in 1934, circumstances closely akin to those we suffer now.

In May this year, the minister announced a principle — that culture and the arts are for everyone. If that is so, then scrapping the Arts Council must be the first step, for none of its major clients in the visual arts could be said to be for everyone — indeed, many deliberately exclude those who may qualify as “everyone”; have its major clients in opera and theatre, poetry and literature, ever been for everyone? In the present climate, these fat cats must turn to the mercies of the private sector and the Government must ensure that what funding there may be passes to the small provincial cultural endeavours.

Neither the Government nor the Arts Council seems to know how vital is the occasional performance of a string quartet on the North Yorkshire moors, a show of master-and-pupil watercolours at Barnard Castle, the festivals in Saddleworth and Saffron Walden, but these small things are truly arts for everyone and should have first bite at the funding cherry.

Scrap the Arts Council. Fund the bottom, not the top. De-accession the superfluous, irrelevant and weak. Impose, for a quinquennium, either entry charges or a culture tax on foreign visitors. And suggest to the millionaire artists whose reputations have been established at public expense by the Arts and British Councils, for the equal benefit of their even richer dealers, that this is payback time, time for the Gormleys and Kapoors to offer a little sponsorship of their own, time for the White Cubes and Victoria Miros to stump up the odd half-million when their pets are exhibited in public galleries. Their empty protests against the cuts seem pretty hollow.