Monday, August 24, 2009

Selling the art for Southampton's new Heritage Centre and Sea City Museum

Above- the West Wing.

"After the Race", its time for a sale...

The squeeze on local government is on- we all know that and shockingly simply because Southampton is a small unitary authority on the South Coast, it gets an appalling deal from the Labour government in terms of its revenue support grant. The result of government grant settlements that are below inflation year after year are inevitably efficiency savings, service cuts or higher taxes. Not surprisingly, politicians shy away from these unpalatable truths, especially at election time.

Inevitably (and in some ways) quite unfairly, it is the arts and heritage that bear the brunt of such cost pressures- perhaps as they are often neither considered front line services nor statutory services. Indeed, when asked, the arts are neither political priorities for many elected members or indeed for many members of the general public. However, in the real world, that does not mean that politicians don't have obligations to the arts (despite the views of the Institute of Economic Affairs' John Blundell).

Southampton City Council's Conservative Administration has appointed Wilkinson Eyre to begin designing the city’s newest heritage attraction, the 'Sea City' Museum. These ambitious plans, to turn the old magistrates courts and police head quarters, at Southampton’s City Councils’ Civic Centre, west wing would cost an estimated £15 million.
The new heritage centre will provide access to and interpretation of Southampton City Councils internationally important maritime heritage collections and will also restore the west wing of the Grade II* listed Civic Centre building. The project will include an exhibition which will help tell the story of the crew members of the Titanic, a story that has largely gone untold outside of Southampton, and around 4,000 items related to and recovered from the Titanic ship will be displayed there. The council expects that this phase of the project will be completed by 2012.
Wilkinson Eyre will lead the design team for the project, which includes locally based consulting engineer Gifford, Davis Langdon, who will act as quantity surveyors and architectural and design company while Urban Salon who will develop educational, original and fun ways to communicate the historical stories within the museum.
The Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded a first round pass and there is a potential to secure a further £4.5 million for the first phase of the work, which the council can apply for once it has completed detailed plans. However, even if successful, the council will still need to find a further £10 million to fund the first phase of the project. Southampton City Council is currently exploring all possible opportunities for raising the money and this is where the problems start.
How to pay for the new attraction? Higher Council taxes are out, not least on the grounds of affordability. There is no sign that central government support for the the local authority will be any more generous, despite the inequitable position the council finds itself in. The council's capital programme is over programmed and while deliverable, is over borrowed. The existing art gallery is running at a huge loss, borne by the authority and in any way, does not charge for admission. The alternative then is to sell some of the non-core parts of the collection and re-invest in art.
This would have some useful benefits. In no particular order,
  • It would enable the art collection to be better displayed (at the moment the gallery displays 250 out of some 3000 works),
  • It would increase the number of visitors overall as well as providing a more populist slant to the current arts offering.
  • It would safeguard the West Wing of the civic centre, a grade 2* building that includes the important magistrates court which itself needs huge capital monies to restore (as water is pouring into the structure)
  • It would lever in huge third party funding from the Lottery and other interested bodies.
  • the scheme should be considered in the round for plans to develop Guildhall square and the new 'cultural quarter', a project which the council is committed to investing circa £15m.

Yet, as reported in The Independent today some people are vehemently against. It seems you should never sell a painting, no matter how much at the periphery of your core collection may be and however worthy the use that such funds might be put to are.

I would contend that outside of the arts world, this is an absurd proposition.


Blogger Opus One said...

It probably isn't true to say that you shouldn't ever sell a painting, but that isn't the point. You don't sell off great works of art, the most precious in the city, to pay for a tasteless scaled-down plastic (or whatever) version of the Titanic. Southampton should be proud of its gallery, and the three things that the Tories want to sell off are the most likely to enhance the collection. If you don't understand that, no wonder you're in favour of flogging them off.

9:53 pm  
Blogger Matt Dean said...

If I may say so, it is you Opus who is rather missing the point. The issue is that masses of the art can't be displayed because we have no space, the selling of some selected works will enable the refurbishement of the West Wing which will in turn lever in millions of pounds of external funding, allowed these works to be displayed and create a new Titanic display.

3:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry Mr Dean, if you are going to sell off anything (and that's a big IF), you start at the least treasured painting and work your way up, you don't sell off some of the best to pay for a building in which to put all the less interesting stuff! Currently the art is rotated and loaned to other galleries, in return for which Southampton is loaned things from elsewhere, that's why the gallery is so good. It's incorrect for people to imply that most of it is never seen - you wouldn't want to see the same things every time you go to the gallery, would you? By the way, the proposed new building (seen in the Daily Echo today) is tiny, and hideous to boot, and could hardly be located in a worse position. It's a SEA museum, get it??? Put it near the waterfront. Please get your fellow councillors to reconsider, as it stands this is a terrible idea.

8:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and how exactly do you tories propose to get planning permission for the civic centre extension revealed in the local press? The civic centre is a grade 2 listed building, and the extension uses inappropriate materials and would be built over a piece of grass including 2 trees, which constitutes a public amnenity (open space). There are also other planning matters to get over, like safety - visitors, many of them elderly or disabled, trying to cross two dangerous roads. So you've got no hope. If they cant stop you flogging the city's most precious art works the public will fight this on planning issues and it will go on and on so just give up now

10:23 am  
Anonymous David Furnell said...

I understand that the the two items the Tories want to sell off will only raise £1million and not £5 million and one of the probable buyers is from abroad.

You have massive opposition to this sell off and you are destroying the good name of Southampton

You should drop this art sale immediately.
Dave Furnell

12:30 am  
Blogger redapple said...

What are the cost benefits to the city of this project and are they available for perusal?

1:46 pm  

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