Museums Association condemns sale of works from Ben Uri Gallery

MA director says auction risks damaging public confidence in museums
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
The Museums Association's (MA) Ethics Committee has said the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum's sale of works from its collection is in breach of the MA's Code of Ethics.
Several pieces from the north London gallery were auctioned at Sotheby’s London this week, including paintings by David Bomberg and Mark Gertler. Twenty-four artworks in total are being sold off.
The sale is part of a longstanding plan by the museum to dispose of around 700 works, in order to raise money to find a more suitable premises and refocus itself as a centre for art by immigrants of all backgrounds, as well as research and dementia outreach.
The gallery was founded as a centre for Jewish artists and immigrants a century ago.
The institution has been consulting over its disposal plans for a number of years, and had presented its case to the MA Ethics Committee for consideration.
The committee found that there was “insufficient evidence” that the financially-motivated disposals were a last resort, as required by the Code of Ethics. The museum resigned its MA membership and withdrew from the Accreditation scheme in 2016. 
In a statement, the MA said: “It is a cornerstone of museum practice that collections should not be sold for profit apart from in exceptional cases, which are tightly defined by the Code of Ethics for Museums and the MA's Disposal Toolkit.
“The Ethics Committee reviewed the Ben Uri Gallery case earlier this year and it was felt by both the committee and the MA board that there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that previous sales and further proposed sales were a last resort and that other funding sources had been fully exhausted, and were therefore deemed to not be justifiable within the spirit and principles of the code.”
The MA’s director, Sharon Heal, warned that the sale could damage public trust in museums. She said: “It is unfortunate that the trustees of the Ben Uri Gallery have decided to go ahead with these sales from their collection. This is contrary to the advice of the Ethics Committee, which was that every effort should be made to retain the collection and that collections should not normally be regarded as financially negotiable assets. 
“The MA supports dynamic collections management and putting collections to good use. However, financially motivated disposal risks damaging public confidence in museums and should only be undertaken in exceptional circumstances.”
Heal added: "Resigning from membership of the MA means the gallery will be ineligible for grants, funding and other support from the MA. If the gallery chooses to reapply in the future, MA trustees may decide to bar it from membership for a set period in light of their actions."
A spokeswoman for Arts Council England (ACE) said: “The Ben Uri Gallery is not an Accredited museum, and has not expressed an interest in re-joining the Museums Accreditation Scheme. They requested to be withdrawn from Accreditation in September 2016, and were formally removed on 10 November 2016 by the Accreditation Panel.
"The recent sale activity by the gallery is not compatible with the requirements of Accreditation, which does determine eligibility for some ACE funding.”
The Ethics Committee's response comes after 11 advisers to the gallery resigned earlier this week, in protest at the auction.
The group, including ACE chair Nicholas Serota, quit the museum’s international advisory panel. In an open letter to the museum, they wrote: “We were not consulted in advance on the proposed sales and believe that sales of such important works from the collection are a grave mistake. We believe that these sales will undermine the ability of the trustees to secure future gifts and a future home for the collection.” 
The Ben Uri Gallery and Museum has defended its decision to sell the works. David Glasser, the executive chair of the institution, said: “Our situation is quite unique as we have set out to give new but different life to [what was] effectively a closed museum, kept alive in spirit, but gallery-less, by our determined predecessors. Between 1915 and 1995 Ben Uri Art Society was a Jewish art society run by and for the Jewish community. It always operated financially hand to mouth. The gallery closed in 1996.

“The dilemma for the then-trustees would inevitably have arisen: whether or how or why to stay open without a gallery or infrastructure or sufficient funds - and then what of the collection?

“In late 2000 this management team of trustees was elected to implement the first of our long-term strategic plans that transformed Ben Uri into the mainstream London/national museum sector, addressing the immigrant experience in British visual arts inspired by the Jewish experience.

“Only the name Ben Uri was left unchanged, but even that was altered to Ben Uri Gallery and Museum to reflect our future. Our principal areas of focus were art, identity and migration. We believed then, and are now more convinced, that sharing the Jewish experience within the wider immigrant context to larger and diverse audiences enhances rather than dilutes our heritage.

“We see the issues at hand in a far wider context than simply the deaccessioning and attempted sale of some 40 works through Sotheby’s, of which to date only eight out of 14 have sold.”

In a further statement, the gallery said: “We do not accept in any way the suggestion that the works in question offered at Sotheby's represent the ‘very heart of the collection’ as that is simply long out of date.”

It continued: “The deacessioning process is curatorial-led and designed, and follows established best practice as there was no financial alternative offered or found.”
Edited to include a statement from Arts Council England.
Edited to include a response from the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.