News and Comment

What value should local government place on the arts in times of austerity?

Wednesday 20 February 2013

A strange, Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles style dispute currently rumbling through local government land raises important questions about whether, and how, councils should value beautiful objects, and what right they have to profit from public assets.

Before Christmas I visited Yorkshire Sculpture Park and saw an exhibit that’s been the source of ongoing agitation between the great and the good of the art world and no fewer than two London councils.

Old Flo, or the “Draped Seated Woman” as it’s officially known, is a creation of the late artist Henry Moore and belongs to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets; but for the last 15 years, Flo has been on loan to the sculpture park and publically displayed in Wakefield.

All of which might be incidental were it not for one small fact: the sculpture is thought to have a potential market value of up to £20 million. This has led cash strapped Tower Hamlets to publically declare its intention to sell the piece, plans that have been passionately and vehemently opposed by cultural luminaries including Danny Boyle and Nicholas Serota of the Tate.

And just to muddy the muddiest of waters still further, Bromley Council has staked a claim of its own for Old Flo – a claim which Tower Hamlets denies, as it presses ahead with its plans to auction the piece at the earliest possible opportunity.

The fate of Moore’s sculpture is an emotive issue, but it is not exceptional. All over the country hard-up local authorities are considering what, if anything, they should do with the often valuable art in their possession. Northampton County Council for instance, is currently seeking a buyer for its £2 million valued Egyptian statue, and in Southampton, the City Council is being encouraged to cash in on a collection worth £190 million.

“The present regime is enforced philistinism”

Speaking to OPM about this issue, the writer and commentator Simon Jenkins lamented the lack of options available to local government to protect their ‘artistic’ assets and suggested the present situation is leading to a cultural degradation:

What is of serious concern is that [local councils] now have no alternative but to raise money in this way. Government has capped their revenue and forced them to save on non-mandatory spending. This has been devastating for the arts, sport and other discretionary programmes such as historic buildings. They must be set free to ask local people if they would like spend a ‘penny rate’ or whatever to save their theatre or swimming pool or art gallery. The present regime is enforced philistinism.

There are no easy answers for councils faced with this dilemma. At a time when libraries, children’s services, public transport and much more are being cut nationwide, whose to say that art is off limits, especially if the revenue from the sale of assets helps to protect frontline services? But neither should we allow art to be branded as superfluous just because times are hard.

There is a need for rigorous evaluation

Instead it would seem that the only fair and sensible way of addressing the position of the arts in local government is by applying the same rigorous scrutiny that other council assets and services face. It was interesting to note that Tower Hamlets defended its decision to sell Old Flo by stating that the sculpture brought: “no tangible benefit to the Tower Hamlets community“. Of course for a sculpture that’s spent the last 15 years 200 miles outside of the community, it’s obviously going to be difficult to quantify the benefits ‘locally’! But the criterion which Tower Hamlets used to evaluate the sculpture’s value – i.e. the tangible benefit it brings to the community – seems a sound one, even if the circumstances in which it was applied appear dubious.

There is strong evidence – albeit perhaps not enough, or sufficiently widely known – that art and arts programmes can bring significant and tangible benefits to the local communities. OPM recently completed an evaluation for the charity Creativity Culture and Education which looked at the impact that three separate arts programmes led by the National Children’s Bureau (in Newcastle, Cumbria and Margate) had on looked after children. The findings are due to be published next month, but we observed that in certain circumstances the children involved displayed benefits including increased confidence, self-esteem, resilience and empathy. These are not just ‘nice’ side-effects; they are precisely the “tangible benefits” Tower Hamlets deemed lacking in Old Flo.

Of course not all arts programmes or cultural assets are as beloved or beneficial to communities as others; just as not all works of art elicit the same sense of civic pride, aesthetic pleasure or emotional attachment. That’s why it is important for councils to engage in conversations and conduct robust evaluation of public assets they own, before deciding whether or not collections should be sold, programmes discontinued, or services stopped. It’s a sad fact that in the current financial climate the arts can’t be immune from tough decisions, but simply assuming that because something is beautiful it’s of trivial value is indeed risky philistinism.