VISUAL ARTS: Disposable Income; CULTURE in Association with the Art Lounge the Sale of a Painting by L S Lowry Has Raised the Question of Whether Museums Should Ever Dispose of Items from Their Collections. Terry Grimley Looks Back at What Birmingham Sold off in the 1950s
Byline: by L S Lowry
The Museums Association took retribution against Labour-led Bury Borough Council last week, announcing its decision to expel its Museum & Art Gallery from membership.
At the same time the association approached a number of public bodies, including the National Lottery, asking them to withhold funding from Bury. The Museums Libraries and Archives Council has already withdrawn its accreditation.
The expulsion - only the second in the Museum Association's 117-year history - was provoked by the sale of a painting by LS Lowry, A Riverbank, in November. Painted in 1947 and bought by the Bury museum four years later for pounds 175, the painting was sold because the council faces a general deficit of pounds 10 million.
Expected to raise around pounds 500,000, it actually sold for pounds 1.25 million.
Museums Association director Mark Taylor said: "Thinking on disposal in general changes all the time, but this flagrant breach of the code of ethics was always likely to be regarded as beyond the pale.
"The MA took this action in order to maintain the standards that we have set for ourselves, and to ensure that we dissuade other governing bodies from doing anything similar."
In response, council leader Wayne Campbell said: "Our alternatives were very limited. When it came down to a decision between key services for the community or a work of art, we had to make a very tough decision.
"People must come first."
Perhaps, now it has been released from any ethical obligations, Bury may feel free to continue cashing in on its artistic heritage. Auctioning off its star exhibit, Turner's Calais Sands, would knock a huge hole in that pounds 10 million deficit.
Ironically, the Museums Association's draconian action comes at a time when it is actively reviewing the question of disposal, a subject which has long been regarded as taboo in the museum world.
This follows on from the association's 2005 report Collections for the Future, which concluded: "Museums cannot keep spending public resources caring for objects that will never be enjoyed or used. Making decisions about disposal is part of a museum's responsibility. Disposal is not risk-free, but neither is unthinking retention."
The association is now preparing a "toolkit" on disposal, to be published at the end of this year.
According to its website: "It is hoped that the advice in the toolkit will give museums the confidence to engage more actively with disposal, and encourage more museums to consider disposal as an integral part of collections development."
This would be quite a radical change in museum thinking, and quite different from the example in Bury, where the money raised was diverted into other council services.
Half a century ago, museum curators were far less reticent about selling off their less highly-regarded exhibits.
During a recent spat between Birmingham city council and Julian Nettlefold, a relative of the pioneering industrialist who left 32 oil paintings by David Cox to the town (as it then still was) in 1885, it emerged that eight of these paintings were sold by the Museum & Art Gallery during the reign of Mary Woodall as director in the 1950s and early 1960s.
By an ironic twist you could not have made up, Dr Woodall was herself a member of the Nettlefold family.
In all, no fewer than 186 paintings were sold under Dr Woodall's directorship between 1957 and 1962. But this does not tell the complete story of the dispersal of collections around this time, because applied art including Indian metalwork collected in the early days of the museum was also sold off.
The list includes ten paintings by Cox, eight from the Nettlefold Bequest and two added to the collection in 1919. Like most of the paintings disposed of, they fetched very low prices, the lowest being just pounds 16.6s (pounds 16.30p) for The Thames, Battersea.
It is not difficult to appreciate Dr Woodall's dilemma and her resulting strategy. She had inherited a collection dominated by British art, particularly from the Victorian period, and wanted to give it more international breadth.
With purchase funds severely limited, her approach was to wheel and deal, selling off the kind of art which the collection had in depth in order to widen its range.
For example, the museum's few examples of Impressionism were bought during this era - at the last possible moment before soaring prices pushed them beyond the reach of regional museums.
Sometimes paintings were bought and sold at the same auctions. For example, at Christie's in March 1958, the museum sold two paintings but also bought Francis Wheatley's A Scene from the Tempest. At the same sale Agnews bought Castiglione's The Angel appearing to the Shepherds, which was bought by Birmingham shortly afterwards.
My own opinion is that selling the Cox paintings was a mistake, given his particular importance to Birmingham and how little they raised.
One of the pitfalls in disposing of art is that what is unfashionable will, by definition, attract low prices - and the selling institution may be made to look foolish when the pendulum of fashion swings back.
But looking through the list of sold-off paintings - unfortunately without the benefit of illustrations - it is difficult to feel that terrible damage was done to Birmingham's heritage.
Many were clearly dross - a 19th century copy of a Rembrandt self-portrait for example, sold for just pounds 2 in 1958 - while many others were second-rank Victorian landscapes about which the best you could probably say is that they would have added depth to the city's extensive holdings of Victorian art.
However, a handful do raise eyebrows. For instance, it's not clear why a study by the American painter John Singer Sargent, which only entered the collection in 1949, would have been a candidate for disposal (the museum has only one other painting by Sargent), and there are a number of paintings of apparent local topographical interest (including a watercol-our of Kenilworth castle by F H Henshaw. A similar subject by this artist sold for thousands at auction a few years ago).
I was particularly sorry to discover that a painting of blast furnaces by Edwin Butler Bayl-iss, a uniquely important artist who focused on Black Country industry in the early 20th century, was carelessly sold for a paltry pounds 2.50 in 1960.
An interesting inclusion on the list is Dead Game, a still life by the obscure Birmingham artist Edward Coleman. In itself it's an unremarkable painting, but its significance is that it was the very first painting acquired by the museum, and a group of Birmingham "gentlemen" clubbed together to buy it.
You might have thought this fact would have made it worth hanging on to (especially as it only fetched pounds 2.60 sold as a pair with Coleman's Dead Hares), but apparently not. You have to remember that, by our standards, the late 1950s and early 1960s were an incredibly unsentimental period. This was when Birmingham's finest Victorian architecture was being ripped down to make way for the inner ring road.
The selling of works given as gifts, and its possible deterrent effect on future benefactors, is one of the reasons for the reaction against disposing of public collections. Nowadays, Dr Woodall's major exercise in buying and selling is looked on with something like horror by curators.
But if the Museum Association's lead becomes the new conventional wisdom, they may be persuaded to rethink their views.
Above, A Riverbank by L S Lowry which was sold to help pay off a council deficit. Below, Crossing the Sands by David Cox, recently included in the book 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, was one of 34 oil paintings by Cox acquired by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery from the Nettlefold Bequest in the 1880s. Eight of them were sold off for less than pounds 265 in 1960…
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Publication information: Article title: VISUAL ARTS: Disposable Income; CULTURE in Association with the Art Lounge the Sale of a Painting by L S Lowry Has Raised the Question of Whether Museums Should Ever Dispose of Items from Their Collections. Terry Grimley Looks Back at What Birmingham Sold off in the 1950s. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: The Birmingham Post (England). Publication date: January 9, 2007. Page number: 13. © 2009 Birmingham Post & Mail Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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