January 12, 2007

Disposals, Local Authorities and Fine Art

I have been invited to speak at a Museums Libraries Archives North West (MLA) symposium on the issues around disposal of artworks today. The reason being Bury Art Gallery & Museum’s recent sale of its LS Lowry painting to balance the budget. The MLA’s response was to de-register the Museum from the national network. Since the curatorial practice has been directed to international partnership and local communities, this disconnection has virtually no direct effect on the museum. It’s a government target dropped but hey, I see today a leaked government memo admitting that they will fail to meet their cleanliness/anti-superbug target in the Health Service – so in the scale of things Bury museum isn’t killing anyone so that’s a good thing. Its difficult to know in advance whether Bury has been invited for a real dialogue about how to deal with the threat culture faces or whether it is a session for potshooting. I am treating it as the former.

I plan to start in about 2002 when Hull City Council decided to dispose of the 'Hull Horizon' text by Lawrence Weiner. On hearing this, I moved to purchase the work for Bury and relocate it on the banks of the Irwell in the centre of Radcliffe. This was the start of a relationship with Lawrence that lead to WATER MADE IT WET, the exhibition of his posters in 2005 as part of the Text Festival and the public conversation. In the context of the Lowry debate it is interesting to speculate what would be the meaning of some future authority disposing of/selling WATER MADE IT WET. (Contractually difficult but say in 200 years when none of us care). Lawrence was very clear that WATER MADE IT WET was not site-specific and that it was as self-contained an artwork as a painting seeking the fundamental human relationship to material – in this case water. So theoretically some future authority could ‘sell’ the text. Maybe the dematerialisation of the object needs more dematerialising. In connection to disposing of artworks, the one that really upsets me is Manchester City Council’s destruction of Lawrence’s Castlefield text, which was painted over by unidentified workmen, presumably mistaking it for graffiti.

Crucially for the museums people, the works above are not their problem because they had not been accessioned to a collection, whereas the Lowry painting had.

In the 1970’s Bury closed its Radcliffe town museum. The collection lay in a box for thirty years. In 1999 I wrote a vision for the future of Bury’s collection that took into account that its real importance to the town and the town’s posterity was the 19th Century collection and that if all we could do was hand that on to future generations then we had wasted our time. Therefore, I argued we should set out to create a 21st Century collection which in our judgement could stand in commensurate status as the Turners and the Constables in the year 2101. This is why we have commissioned and acquired artists like Weiner and R├╝ckriem. Pursuing a rigorous curatorial logic, since the Lowry Centre was opening just 20 minutes away, there was even an argument for deaccessioning the 20th Century art, which except for one or two items (including the Lowry) was pretty forgettable. That was a curatorial reason. But Bury ultimately decided to sell the Lowry for a financial reason. Could the Gallery have been closed if it didn’t sell the painting? Maybe. But no-one thinks the sale was a good idea. The democratically elected members who made the final decision, the professional advisors and staff, the public. It wasn’t a good idea but it was the only cut that could be thought of. Personally I think if we stopped bombing and killing foreigners we’d have less financial pressures.

So it was sold, not destroyed. The Gallery stayed open to provide its world class museum experience to its visitors, who if they want to see Lowry paintings can take a 20 minute tram ride to see loads of them (in a really badly designed building, but that is another story). And Bury has been cut off from polite (British) museum company, an action which I see as indicative of the MLA and museum sectors own weakness rather than ours.

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