November 08, 2007

Dynamic Rationalisation

As previously mentioned there have been no negative consequences for the Gallery & Museum Service in Bury since it was de-registered for selling the Lowry painting last year. The programme continues to be exciting and innovative and attract a lot of positive attention. Other UK public galleries taking their bat and ball home has had no effect on our programme, and when we have needed to borrow an artwork for an exhibition we have sourced it outside the [public] “Sector”, or more usually outside the country. In fact the only consequence I have noticed is that I get invited to speak on platforms at conferences considering collection and disposal policy. This is usually on the basis that Bury is a pariah service having done the dirty deed – so I guess it is usually expected that I should speak chastely about how desolate it is to be outside the fold. This isn’t my perspective at all. I am invited to yet another conference on Friday called “Dynamic Rationalisation”; the gist of this is that it is alright to dispose of collected items as long as you have some plan that legitimizes it. The opening question I find most strange: “Selling the art treasures: When is it ethical to sell works of art?” So the discussion starts from the same muddle-headed confusion in which it has been mired throughout. Just commenting on the lack of rigour in its wording – artists sell works of art, gallerists and collectors sell works of art. So presumably that is ethical. The implication then is that when a public gallery buys a work (from someone who sells it ethically) it achieves a designation of art treasure and in which miraculous state it is protected for eternity. But no, it is more complicated – you can sell it ethically if you have created a dynamic rationalization for the sale. So where Bury went wrong was that instead of selling it for the dynamic rationalization that I identified – the work didn’t fit aesthetically or historically into the collection and that with the Lowry Centre 20 minutes away the public could see much better examples of his work nearby – the Council acknowledged its financial crisis and tied the sale to saving the whole museum and the rest of the collection. Subsequently however nearly half of the value of the sale has gone back into cultural and museum spending. So it turns out that Bury is guilt of half an unethical act because if it had spent all the money on the museum everything would be ok. But failing to get over itself, “the Sector” still sulks about it.

“The Sector” and the politicians have constructed a description of the world that bears no relation to what is actually going on – the former because of its own fear, weakness of vision and lack of leadership, and the latter because it is responsible for the low value/manipulation of culture of its own ends.

Dealing with governance first, the contradictory positions of the government agenda comes out in the DCMS response to the Culture, Media and Sport Parliamentary Select Committee Report on Caring for our Collections Session 2006/7. The committee find it “incongruous that no sanction at all should apply to local authorities which choose to close museums and disperse collections… it is right that there should be sanctions for those museums that sell parts of their collections purely to meet the financial needs of the council.” In relation to Bury, this is already confused: Bury Museum didn’t sell part of its collection, the local authority did. This judgment is confused about whether it is the local authority or the museum that should be sanctioned. Their very next paragraph beggars this: “Museums & Galleries are a discretionary local authority service and their funding is a matter for the relevant Council, its councilors and the local community”. So these services are discretionary but if a council decides to no longer provide them or to reduce it, then it (or its museum) should be punished. How does that work then? Herein of course is the root of the weakness of the sector – museums are not statutory so when finances are pressured or the government makes the easy “difficult decision” to spend our billions on bombing foreigners, they are the most vulnerable to cuts. This is why the self-righteousness of some of the delegates and platform speakers at these disposals conferences is so laughable – Bury just happened to be the first, it could just as easily happen to them; there are growing examples around the country where the museum has simply been closed completely. Instead of attacking the immorality of Bury, the Sector should have been campaigning with it to protect museum funding, to make museums statutory like libraries or schools.

The Select Committee report goes on: “Where a local authority seeks to close a museum or otherwise disperse the collection, the community may seek the help of their councilor who can raise a Community Call for Action requiring the decision be scrutinized.” This is somewhat cheeky to say in the context of Bury; the councilors made the decision to sell after 2 full Council meetings and much consultation. That sentence disingenuously implies that a local authority decides to shut the museum on a whim or philistine putsch. What is much more likely is that this option will be part of a greater crisis where, as it was in Bury, it is a case of sell a painting (or close a service) or shut an old people’s home, or employ less teachers, etc. You get still get local people asking why Council’s waste any public money on art as it is, so the notion that a Community Call for Action is going to save the Gallery over something else is nonsense. It should be noted too that Bury’s decision was made using the full processes of local government democracy whereas no-one voted for the people in the MLA and Museums Association who made the decision to sanction.

Bury gets a specific mention in the report: MPs join the chorus of disapprobation (rather than offering a political solution like calling for museums to be made statutory services), and go on “…we share the concern of the sector that other local authorities may be encouraged to follow Bury’s example, not least by the unexpectedly large sum raised by the sale. We believe that this would be a retrograde step.” It was not good for Bury to be in that position but it was national political policy and local government funding that created the crisis. The punishment and (getting tedious) criticism of Bury is nothing to do with the morality of selling art, it is aimed at scaring other authorities that might see this as a route out of a crisis. What I find fascinating in the subsequent developments is the full realization of pointlessness and irrelevance of the “Sector’s” structures. The MLA has decided that Bury can’t re-apply to join its club for 5 years, but the rumours abroad are that the MLA itself may not exist by then. It was obvious from the start that the “Renaissance in the Regions” policy was no more than a process of centralizing control creating a structure which obeyed government performance indicator culture for not much more money to make it worth it. Bury didn’t seek admittance to this pen for that very reason.

Interestingly the converse of disposal, acquisition, is touched on in the Select Committee paper: “Whether or not the gap between museum’s acquisitions budgets and the cost of acquisitions is properly described as a “crisis”, there is a clear decline in their power to keep collections growing and an urgent need for action to restore museums’ power to develop their collections. We are, however, concerned that the very high prices now commanded by great works of art are calling into question the feasibility of public art galleries regularly continuing to compete for them against enormously wealthy individuals and institutions.”
Gratifyingly, Bury has continued to compete in acquisition of “great works of art” for years. Personally, I think that it is not how much money you have but how cleverly you direct it. The telling phrase is “great works of art”, of course. Capital-centric in both sense of the word, the establishment locates artistic value in economic value. It is a further sign of cultural hegemonic decline that the Imperial of International collecting has shifted away from Britain.

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