Campaigners are in a race against time to prevent Lincoln’s Usher Gallery from being closed down and turned into a coroner’s court and wedding venue.
Third parties have been given until September to put forward viable plans to run the gallery as an independent trust. The institution – Lincoln’s only purpose-built public art gallery – is operated by Lincolnshire County Council, which is pressing ahead with the closure in spite of a recent consultation showing that 75% of the public opposed the move.
The county council is looking to cut £750,000 a year from its heritage budget and make the service more commercial and self-sufficient. Under its proposals, some of the gallery’s collections would be displayed at a “supersite” in the neighbouring Collection Museum, which would also absorb collections from other heritage sites in the area.
At a scrutiny committee meeting last week, Lincolnshire Heritage Trust and the Usher Gallery Trust were given the go-ahead to propose an alternative plan to run the gallery. “The council is now prepared to talk to a third party to run it,” said Fiona Hodges, a locally-based artist and founder of the Save Lincoln’s Usher Gallery campaign.
“That has been added in to the original recommendations, which is good because it shows that if you get up in arms and make a fuss you can move things a little.”
Hodges said the timescale for a third party proposal was “extremely tight”, as it would need to be ready ahead of the executive council’s final decision in early September. “It’s not an outright win at this point but there is that hope there.”
Opposition councillors have called for the decision to be delayed for up to a year to allow more time for alternative proposals.
The plans have led to a war of words between the county council and City of Lincoln Council, which owns the 1927 gallery building and around half of its collection of artworks, clocks, coins and historical artefacts.
The county council became custodian of the building and collection under a 1974 local authority agreement, but is now proposing to hand around 30,000 artefacts back to the city council.
The city council says it does not have the space or expertise to store and care for the objects, and would be forced to put them in a specialist storage facility outside of Lincolnshire if the plans go ahead.
City councillor Ric Metcalfe told local media this week that the county council’s proposals were “a betrayal of our county’s rich heritage”. He said: “The county council has been the custodians of the collection since 1974 and now they are looking to just walk away.
“I am shocked by their decision to progress with their plans despite significant opposition and the known impact it will have on public access to Lincolnshire’s historical artefacts.”
He continued: “Heritage services have sat with the county council for more than 45 years. They are experts in the field and have been entrusted with looking after the city’s rich historical artefacts. It is very clear where the responsibility for these artefacts lies.
“We are very concerned that the county council no longer appears to take its role as custodian of these important works of art seriously.”
The city council would need to sign off any plans to hand the gallery over to a third party. Lincolnshire County Council’s executive member for heritage, Nick Worth, said in a statement: "If the city council blocks both options on the table, they would need to come up with alternative plans to avoid closure of the building altogether as under the proposals we would be handing back to them responsibility for their collections.”
The county council gave assurances to scrutiny committee that the transfer of collections would be handled carefully and that artefacts in storage would be available for borrowing.
A report earlier this year by the county council found that the gallery “is not popular with visitors”, attracting 20,000 people a year compared to 120,000 at the neighbouring Collection Museum. Closing it would save an estimated £100,000 annually.
But Hodges said the gallery had been neglected and needed “investment and revitalising” rather than closure. “It could do an awful lot more to engage with people in the city,” she said.
Lincolnshire County Council is planning to bid for around £5m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to improve its heritage services and transform the Collection Museum and Lincoln Castle into tourism hubs.
The council is also planning to hand management of Gainsborough Old Hall back to its owner, English Heritage, and is seeking third parties to run several other sites, including Stamford Discovery Centre and a number of historic windmills.