Councillors are moving forward with plans to hand Lincoln's Usher Gallery over to a third-party operator after local residents staged a major campaign against its closure.
Lincolnshire County Council had been planning to turn the purpose-built gallery building into a coroner’s court and wedding venue, in spite of a consultation showing that local residents strongly opposed the move. The plans are part of a wider shake-up of the council’s heritage service intended to save £750,000 a year.
Following a crunch meeting last week, the council agreed to give an independent operator, established by the Historic Lincoln Trust and the Usher Gallery Trust, until 31 October to put forward a full business plan for the site.
The operator will then have a further two months to show it is making significant progress towards raising funding to run the gallery, which is unlikely to receive any ongoing financial support from the council.
The option for the gallery to be used for alternative purposes will remain on the table until the third-party operator has met these requirements.
A working group made up of heritage professionals and other interested parties, including members of the Save Lincolnshire’s Usher Gallery (Slug) campaign group, has been formed to explore new funding possibilities for the gallery.
“It’s good news up to a point,” said Fiona Hodges, the Lincoln-based artist who founded the Slug campaign. “Now it’s all about the third party coming up with a business plan.”
However she warned that uncertainty remained over the future of the gallery’s 30,000-strong collection of artworks, artefacts, clocks and coins.
The county council, which became the custodian of the building and collection under a local authority agreement in 1974, is moving ahead with plans to terminate that agreement and transfer any items that predate it – around half of the collection – back to their legal owner, the City of Lincoln Council.
The city council has said it does not have the expertise to store or care for the collection and would have to move it to a specialist storage facility outside Lincolnshire. Hodges said a “new agreement” would be necessary to ensure the entire collection remained at the gallery. “It all boils down to who takes financial responsibility for it,” she added.
The leader of the City of Lincoln Council, Ric Metcalfe, told local media last week that the plans to hand back the collection were “utterly outrageous”.
He said: “This suggestion has never been put to the public for consultation and we have never been given any opportunity to explain the impact this would have on the city council, residents and heritage itself."
Metcalfe added: “We completely understand why Lincolnshire County Council needs to make changes to the way it conducts its business.
"It is operating at a time when there are scarce resources for local government, as central government inflicts cut after cut on us all. These cuts from central government have left the county council with difficult choices to make. However, the choices made must be appropriate.
“Putting the county’s heritage services in a commercial setting in the hope that it will break even is both unrealistic and undesirable. It will always need a subsidy in order to remain accessible to all.
“It is very disappointing that the county council is seeking to stop running the Usher directly. However, we are pleased to see they are willing to work with a third party and we urge them to take those conversations seriously."
Lincolnshire County Council’s executive member for culture, Nick Worth, said: “We know there’s a passionate minority who want to keep the Usher Gallery as it is, but we had to take the decision that’s best for the county as a whole.
“The Usher Gallery Trust and Historic Lincoln Trust have shown an interest in taking on the gallery and we are open to that.
“So while things are moving forward, we will continue our discussions with them to see if they can come up with a workable proposal.
“Of course, any changes at the Usher would need to be approved by the gallery’s owner, the City of Lincoln Council, and we will continue to explore the options with it."