Councils face hard decision over art

The twisted bronze figures of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin are known throughout the world. But does Southampton need to have one?

The impassive statue of Sekhemka, an Egyptian official, dating from 2400BC, would be an attraction in any of the great international museums. But what does it mean to the people of Northampton?

It is understandable that art should be among the first casualties of spending cuts. It never appears more of a luxury than when competing with emergency services for scarce funds. No one died through not seeing a painting in its usual space.

The first reason that local councils collect art is that it gives their populations a vivid sense of their own history. What gives a better impression of the industrialisation of the north of England than the paintings of L.S. Lowry? Old Flo, an echo of Henry Moore’s famous Blitz sketches, is a vital document of east London history.

For local authorities to consider divesting themselves of such resonant works is to give away part of their history. Nothing succeeds better than art in telling stories and capturing young imaginations.

But the same case cannot be made for the various exotic trinkets that have ended in council collections, often entirely by accident, perhaps through the colonial hordes of local dignitaries.

Here, a different ethos is at work. The passion for public institutions to collect and display art was a product of postwar idealism. There was a determination to make the best art available to everyone. It would increase international understanding, and help prevent future wars.

Local councils were a crucial part of the picture. Bringing art to the people, rather than keeping it in the vaults of large metropolitan institutions, would civilise the nation.

But technological advances have made the dissemination of art a much more straightforward affair. If art must be sold by local councils – and there must be every sympathy with the infernally difficult choices they have to make – it should be the works that have no direct links with their immediate areas.

You can trim your aspirations to be an encyclopedic museum of world culture, but you should never fritter away your own history.

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