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

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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 The Museums Libraries and Archives Council has already withdrawn its accreditation.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. …