Rant 65: Whose Paintings?

Rant 65: Whose Paintings? Lorsen Camps, Noseless bear money box, 2007

Whose paintings? Our Paintings! Or so we would like to think, but in times of austerity and massive funding cuts to local councils, museums and art galleries are we about to see a flurry of auctions selling off major publicly owned artworks in order to cover costs in other areas?


Launched earlier this year, Your Paintings is an ambitious project aiming to provide a complete online catalogue of every publicly owned painting in the UK.

However, it seems that the notion of selling off these artworks to top up recession-hit coffers is gaining ground. Just last month Bolton Council auctioned off 35 works by artists including Millais and Picasso in order to raise money for a new museum storage facility.

Shocking yes, surprising no; for in this age of cuts (Bolton Council's budget is being slashed by £60m) it was only a matter of time before the family silver began to be raided.

Bolton Council is not the first to de-accession artworks in a bid to raise funds.

Last year the Royal Cornwall Museum made £2.1m by selling off two important paintings from its collection. Back in 2009 Southampton City Art Gallery attempted to sell a Rodin to raise funds for a new maritime museum, though thankfully that sale was thwarted following a massive public outcry.

However, de-accessioning, when done sensitively can actually be beneficial. In the case of duplicated artworks or where individual artists are overly represented, carefully considered sales can ultimately help enrich a collection.

Careless decisions, however, can come back to haunt institutions. Consider Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, who have described their sale of South Asian and Far Eastern metalwork in the 1950s as 'an act of irrevocable rashness.' 

Even when artworks are de-accessioned wisely, it is imperative that money raised should only be used to improve existing collections and never to pay for other services.

There's a worrying precedent being set in Bolton that could result in many of the nation's artworks being sold off as a short-term fix for ailing public services.

If local authorities continue with this folly, how long will it be before ‘Your Paintings’ become someone else's?


Contributed by David Trigg

David Trigg is an art writer based in Bristol.


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