Kirklees Council backs down on £20m Bacon sale proposal

Attempt to sell painting by Francis Bacon would forfeit ownership to Contemporary Art Society
Patrick Steel
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David Sheard, the leader of Kirklees Council in Yorkshire, has been forced to row back on his suggestion that the council could sell a Francis Bacon painting, valued at £20m and described in council documents as “the most significant exhibit in the collection”.

Commenting on Twitter at the end of last year, Sheard said: “If I were a philistine, I might compare the costs of caring for a piece of coloured canvass to an aging resident with dementia.

“I have been asked ‘Should we sell our Bacon’. Any thoughts?”

Bacon's Figure Study II costs £10,000 a year to insure and keep secure. Kirklees’ culture budget is £1.057m, but the council is proposing to halve this to £531,000 from April 2017.

The budget cuts have already seen Red House Museum and Dewsbury Museum close in the past six months, while the future of the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield is uncertain.

Prompted by findings in the council’s annual accounts that only 15% of its 3,000 artworks, worth around £30m, are on display, David Hall, deputy leader of Kirklees Conservatives, was quoted by the Huddersfield Daily Examiner as saying: “It is bizarre the council owns artwork that it cannot insure to display. What is the point in owning pictures that our residents can never see?

“We own paintings by Lowry, Auerbach, Martin and Bacon, and a sculpture by Moore but no one gets to see them because they sit in our cellars.

“The public have no idea what they are or that we own them.”

Museums Journal understands that the Lowry, Auerbach, Martin and Moore are currently on display at Huddersfield Art Gallery.

And following an intervention by the Contemporary Art Society, which donated the Bacon painting to the Bagshaw Museum in Batley in 1952 on condition that it would not be subject to disposal, Sheard tweeted yesterday: “Should the museum attempt to dispose of the artwork it will automatically forfeit title of the artwork to Contemporary Art Society.”

A council statement said: "Kirklees Council cannot sell the work. If we tried, it would be taken away from us and given to another institution.

"Kirklees Museums and Galleries is an Arts Council England Accredited museums service and holds collections in trust for the people of Kirklees. Like other Accredited museums, it works to the Museums Association's Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Disposal."

Sheard told Museums Journal: “If someone approached us now [offering the Bacon painting], would we accept it? The answer is we wouldn’t. It is not a core function of ours to store paintings.”

Graham Turner, the council's cabinet member for resources, said: "Nobody wants to be in a position where museums have to close, or where we have to consider the possibility of selling works of art.

"However, we have had to look at every option, if only to discount it, as we have done in the case of the Francis Bacon painting."

Alistair Brown, the Museums Association’s policy officer, said: “It’s always worrying when councillors suggest selling off the family silver to fill a gap in their budget.

“It would certainly be unethical if they were to do so and I hope that Kirklees Council doesn’t pursue this idea any further.

“But this incident is a reminder of the huge financial strain that councils are under, and the difficult choices that they face in delivering cultural services alongside statutory services.”

The painting has been on loan to the Tate Liverpool since May 2016 for an exhibition that then toured to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, and will be on display as a loan to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh in February.

It is not the first time that Kirklees councillors have considered selling from the council’s collections. In 2014 councillors voted against a proposal to review the art collection with a view to selling off works.



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