Written evidence submitted by David Lee,
The Jackdaw (arts 233)
Appended is my answer to the request by a member
of the Culture Select Committee to justify my criticism of purchasing
policies in publicly owned collections.
We were discussing, I recall, the Arts Council
Collection, a repository of some 7,546 works (plus 67 more bought
in the last 12 months), which has no permanent home, the overwhelming
majority of the work (80% according to an ACE employee, 70% according
to the Chief Executive of ACE) being at any one time in store.
I stated my belief that in times of financial hardship it is imprudent
that new acquisitions should be made of work by artists who are
either already extensively represented in its own or in other
Government collections: for your information, apart from the Arts
Council's these state-owned holdings are most conspicuously the
Government Art Collection (13,500 works, plus 75 new works added
this year); the British Council Collection (8,500 works, plus
100 new works bought recently); and the Tate (78,000 works, more
of whose recent acquisitions below).
In the last year the Arts Council has acquired
a work by Jeremy Deller (who is currently a serving trustee of
the Tate; a gallery which awarded him the Turner Prize in 2004).
It is the third work in the collection by the artist. The Tate
also already owns five major works by Deller, four of which are
not on display. These include his most famous work, a film and
installation of the reenactment of a confrontation between police
and demonstrators at Orgreave during the 1984 Miner's Strikea
work funded by the Arts Council Lottery. The Government Art Collection
has also this year bought a work from Deller; indeed it is the
same work as one of the undisplayed pieces in the Tate's collection,
and also repeats the same Deller work in the Arts Council Collection.
The British Council owns three works by Deller, one of them being
the same workHistory of the Worldbought this year
by the Government Art Collection and which is also in the permanent
collections of the Tate and the Arts Council. Is the public trying
to corner the market in this work, for it owns four copies of
it? History of the World is, incidentally, a moderately amusing
flow diagram relating Acid House music to Brass Bands: I suppose
it would be considered impertinent nitpicking to comment that
it contains not the merest thread of art. There are also ten works
by Deller in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Deller has been in
the forefront of the campaign by Turner Prize artists to ensure
that funding for the visual arts is maintained and, if possible,
increased. His support is not surprising really is it.
Such duplications are obviously wasteful and
indicate more generally that collections might rationalise their
purchasing nationally, or at least regionally. How many national
collections, each harbouring enormous quantities of unseen work
do we need buying workseven the same onesby the
same few fashionable artists?
You must bear in mind that the Arts Council
and British Council collections were both inaugurated to make
purchases from artists at the beginning of their careers in order
to give them confidence and support and encourage them through
the rough period immediately following art college. This seems
an estimable use of scarce resources because established artists
don't need help from the state. That laudable policy has been
overturned by both the Arts Council and British Council to the
extent that they are now acquiring works from a roll-call of the
most recognisable and successful brands in British art| Effectively,
they are both duplicating the collecting responsibility of the
Also this year, the Arts Council Collection
bought nine works by Wolfgang Tillmans, a German photographer
and also, like Deller, a Turner Prize winner and a serving trustee
of the Tate Gallery. (Incidentally, why any of our British photographers
don't qualify as a trustee of our principle gallery is bewildering.
Mr Chairman, your committee may at some stage decide to look into
the fishy resistance of the Tate to having appointed to its Board
of Trustees any but Turner Prize winners and nominees.) These
nine works were acquired despite the Tate already owning 63 works
by Tillmans, none of which is currently on display. The British
Council also owns 11 works by Tillmans. Forgive my impertinence,
but what is the work of a German photographer doing in the collection
of a body whose founding function is to advance the standing of
British Culture abroad?
Another bulk acquisition this year to the Arts
Council Collection was five works by Keith Coventry. The collection
already has in its vaults 23 works by this artist. The Tate also
owns four works, one of which is currently on display, and the
Government Art Collection and the British Council own another
I notice in passing that the Arts Council Collection
also acquired this year three works by Bridget Riley to add to
the 11 existing in the collection. Riley also has 30 works in
the Tate (four currently on display), nine in the Government Art
Collection and 30 pieces in the British Council Collection.
The most expensive purchase this year by the
Government Art Collection was the £57,500 paid for Cornelia
Parker's 14 crushed silver-plated objects: her ninth work in the
collection. There are already 21 works by Parker in the Tate's
collection (two currently on display), one of which is from the
same series as that bought by the Government Art Collection, though
it is not on display. Another Parker work, also from the same
series, is owned by the British Council among six works in that
collection by the same artist. The Arts Council Collection owns
a further nine works by Parker, one of which duplicates a work
in the Victoria and Albert Museum's print collection.
I could continue like this indefinitely. Considerable
savings could be made by stopping all but essential purchases
and especially those which duplicate acquisitions in other national
collections. Indeed, I can see no reason why the any of these
four organisations (the Tate, ACE, GAC and the British Council)
should make any purchases at all in the next few years because
they already own far in excess of what they can ever exhibit.
The works in the Arts Council and British Council
collections which are never shown and never requested for loan
should be given to regional museums, or otherwise sold. Additionally,
there is no good reason why the Government Art Collection should
not be disposed of in its entirety. The public would lose nothing
by these disposals and receive positive benefits in terms of savings
and capital gains. If ministers wish to borrow works for their
offices why can't they do it from the Tate which has an unseen
cache of work five times the size of the Government Art Collection's.
Further on the subject of State acquisitions|
The next time you hear Sir Nicholas Serota moaning about not having
sufficient money to extend the collections of his exponentially
expanding empire, please bear this in mind: in the last four years
for which there are published records, 2006-09, the Tate has acquired
2,209 new works. This equates to one new item every 16 hours for
four years. Indeed, in the last five years the Tate Gallery has
absorbed more new works than the National Gallery has accumulated
in its entire 186-year historythe National Gallery, incidentally,
has all its works on display.
If a moratorium were placed on new purchases
for, say, the next five years in all national collections, visitors
to the galleries would notice no difference to their experience.
I wish to reiterate the following points I made
to the committee:
1. The overwhelming majority of British artists
would not notice the complete withdrawal of all Arts Council funds
allocated to the visual arts because they are considered by the
Arts Council to be "the wrong kinds of artists" and
don't benefit from the Arts Council's existence in any way.
2. The visual arts are unlike any other discipline
dealt with by the Arts Council. In drama and music, the concert
halls and theatres and the canons performed in them already existed.
In the visual arts the Council opened its own galleries, some
of them like the Whitechapel limping relics from a former age.
These have been most often directed by the AC's own former employees
who are reliably steeped in the ethos of the Arts Council. The
Council then institutionalised a new species of what it calls
"Challenging Contemporary Art" to exhibit in them. Everyone
else who falls outside this conveniently ill-defined phrase is
excluded. The Arts Council has thus established an unhealthy monopoly,
indeed a tyranny, which excludes more artists and styles than
it includes. This derives solely from the personal prejudices
of Arts Council employees instead of upon an intellectual openness
to excellence wherever it exists on what is a very diverse stylistic
spectrum in current art.
3. If you were today devising from scratch a
way of funding the visual arts, you would look at the way the
Arts Council does it as an object lesson in how to fail the overwhelming
majority of your constituency.
4. The need to rationalise in some way national
and regional art collections first occurred to me in November
2006 when Bury Council sold a painting by L S Lowry from Bury
Art Gallery in order to plug a gap in its annual accounts of £500,000.
The painting sold for £1.4 million and the surplus was apparently
used to pay for a library in Ramsbottom. Deaccessioning, as this
process of selling works from public collections is clumsily called,
is a thorny subject which always causes outbursts of possessiveness
among museum people. The truth is that when Bury sold its Lowry
and left its walls devoid of a work by this highly popular local
artist, there were in public collections within a few miles of
Bury 305 works by Lowry which were not on show; these included
13 in Whitworth Art Gallery, 19 in Manchester City Art Gallery
and 270 in Salford's Lowry Centre. Galleries in Preston, Stockport,
Bolton, Burnley and Oldham also had works by Lowry in their collections
which were not at the time of the Bury sale on display. It is
not that there is a shortage of works in public collections by
artists like Lowry but that they are unseen in places that don't
apparently currently need them. If ever there was an argument
for a centralised, collectivised management of art collections
it was highlighted by the sale of the Lowry from Bury.
5. Possible immediate savings by the Arts Council:
withdraw funding from the ICA, which is now functionless and incompetently
managed. Remove funding from the Serpentine Gallery. The few London
dealers who benefit by having their artists exhibited in the Serpentine
should be encouraged to assume running control. The gallery recently
staged two exhibitions in one year dedicated to Jeff Koons and
Richard Prince. Both these artists are represented by dealer Larry
Gagosian who has his own spacious galleries in London which are
more extensive than those of the Serpentine. Why is the Arts Council
funding a gallery to show works by the world's wealthiest artists
represented by the world's wealthiest dealer when those artists
could just as easily be exhibited in their own dealers' rooms?
In the last year the Serpentine has shown the elderly artist Richard
Hamilton, who also has a London dealer and has already been accorded
no fewer than three retrospectives at the Tate. Also it has shown
the ubiquitous Wolfgang Tillmans, who naturally has his own London
dealer and has also recently enjoyed a huge retrospective at the
Tate, where he is now safely installed as a Trustee. A quarter
of all the money spent by the Arts Council's visual arts department
(£3 million of £12 million) would be saved by allowing
both these organisations to sink or swim. The overwhelming majority
of the public would notice no difference. And I don't even mention
the Hayward Gallery, which is a laughing stock ...