A collection of almost 30,000 art and artefacts belonging to Lincoln city – including the renowned Usher Collection – is to be moved to Nottingham after a row between two councils over the future of the Usher Gallery.
The City of Lincoln Council announced last week that it had completed the legal paperwork with Nottingham City Council to transfer the artefacts to a new, purpose-built facility in Nottingham in 2021 for an initial two-year period. The new facility is a 45-minute drive away from Lincoln.
It comes after the city council reached an impasse in negotiations with Lincolnshire County Council over the future use of the Usher Gallery and care of the collections it holds. Both the building and the collection are legally owned by the city council; under a 1974 quid pro quo arrangement, the building is loaned to Lincolnshire County Council for free and it cares for the objects in return.
The gallery, which was built to house art and artefacts bequeathed to the city by jeweller and philanthropist James Usher in 1927, was threatened with closure last year when the county council announced plans to cut its heritage budget by £750,000 and transform the building into a coroner’s court and wedding venue, moving its art and artefacts to a so-called “supersite” in the neighbouring museum, The Collection.
After a local campaign to save the venue, the county council agreed to enter into negotiations with a third party, led by Historic Lincoln Trust, to run Usher Gallery as an independent trust. Museums Journal understands that these negotiations are still ongoing. At the same time, however, Lincolnshire County Council informed the city council that it was handing back responsibility for the care of the collections unless the city council agreed to pay storage costs.
The two councils have failed to reach a compromise in the year since their initial disagreement. In a statement last week, the City of Lincoln Council said: “Unfortunately, the city council was given notice by the county council in September 2019 that it intended to hand back all of the art and artefacts it was storing on the city council’s behalf, unless the city council was prepared to pay for its storage in future. This is despite the city council providing the Usher Gallery and The Collection building to the county council on leases that are essentially rent-free.”
Ric Metcalfe, the leader of the city council, expressed disappointment at the situation, saying in a statement: “Lincolnshire County Council has looked after our art and artefacts without charge since 1974. Their decision to return all our material - which amounts to almost 30,000 individual pieces - after so long shows a contempt for the city’s rich heritage.
“Unsurprisingly, the city council has no specialist facility of its own in which to store the material and so has been forced to identify another provider. Nottingham City Council staff come with a national profile and reputation for high quality heritage services, and they will now take a lead on behalf of the city council in overseeing the complex process which will ultimately see the transfer of all art and artefacts to them in October 2021.”
Lincolnshire County Council says that its plans to change the use of the building were part of “an exciting vision of the future of culture”. Council leader Martin Hill told Museums Journal that it wanted the Usher Gallery to be part of a wider, cohesive cultural strategy for Lincolnshire. “We asked the city council if they could give us more flexibility in terms of how we use the spaces. We’re still very clear that we’ll honour the terms of the Usher bequest,” said Hill.
He said the county council had been hoping to replicate the success they had achieved with Lincoln Castle, which won £20m lottery funding and has seen greatly increased footfall since. “Bluntly, what’s on offer in the Usher isn’t great,” said Hill. “Our plan is to apply for funding with an innovative offer. We have a strategy to revive what goes on in the gallery.”
The county council’s plan would see several unused rooms in the 1927 listed building repurposed for commercial use, including as a wedding venue; artworks would continue to be displayed in the rest of the space, said Hall. He said negotiations had stalled because the city council would not consider any change of use to the building.
“The only condition we’ve got left is that they are prepared to give us some flexibility on the part of the gallery that is not being used much, and we will continue to look after the artefacts free of charge,” said Hill. “It all seems a bit unnecessary. I think there’s a really good solution that would mean everyone comes out smiling.”
The county council says it will continue to act as custodian for the Usher Gallery building.
Fiona Hodges, a local artist who led the Save Lincoln’s Usher Gallery campaign last year, told Museums Journal that many local people were “irritated” at the animosity between the two councils, which she said was party political and predated the disagreement over the gallery.
However, she said that the collection’s move to Nottingham could bring benefits for both counties. “It will still be available to the people of Lincoln but will also be shown more widely, and there may be a swap between Lincoln and Nottingham,” she said. “That sounds like quite good news.”