The People’s Art

The deaccessioning of collections is very much in the air at the moment, what with the city of Detroit attempting to declare itself bankrupt, and thereby opening the possibility that the contents of the Detroit Institute of Arts could be sold off to defray the losses of the city’s creditors.

Caravaggio, Martha & Mary Magdalene, c.1598, Detroit Institute of Arts

This shocking idea (to many) has been played down since May, probably because of the outcry that arose on its emergence. On a rather smaller scale, Croydon Council has decided to auction part of a collection of antique Chinese ceramics (the most valuable part), in order to refurbish an arts centre.

A mid-16th century Jiajing saucer, Museum of Croydon

This proposal hasn’t been mitigated, in spite of opposition from the Museums Association and the Arts Council, and Croydon Council has skated around the conditions its own website acknowledges, under which the collection was bequeathed provided that it was never split up (Martin Bailey, The Art Newspaper, 248, July/Aug.2013, p.14). Again, Northamptonshire Borough Council wants to sell a £2,000,000 statue of Sekhemka, an Egyptian court official, dating from c.2,400 BC, in order to benefit Northampton Museum.

Monument of Sekhema, c.2,400 BC, Northampton Museums & Art Gallery

This is in spite of a deed of gift, signed by the donor (the 4th Marquis of Northampton) and the town clerk in 1880, which accepts the gift and agrees to display it freely in perpetuity.

 Whatever the size, importance and conditions of acceptance of these collections or items, this is a worryingly Gradgrindish attitude towards something so necessary to life and civilization as art.

Victoria Public Library, London, 1904. Photo: Jamie Barras

We may be still in the midst of a world-wide recession, but we are also overall much better off generally than in the 19th  & early 20th centuries, when museums and philanthropists sprang up like mushrooms, libraries were built and endowed, and many of the super-wealthy saw it as their duty to help the less fortunate through the gift of education and also of beautiful and historic objects. The slums and uncushioned want of the 19th century no longer exist; we still have the poor and the unemployed, but we don’t have the abject poverty of 150 years ago. However, we do have a wealthy class corresponding to the Carnegies, Hearsts and Rockefellers, the Leylands, William Grahams and Raes; but many of them don’t seem to be moved in the same way by a Victorian sense of responsibility.

If government can consider the idea of privatization of bits of stuff (within the NHS, education, &c., &c), how much more ought they to be encouraging people to sponsor the arts?

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888, Tate

And now we have the example of Art Everywhere, to show that anyone who wants to can give £10 or so, and help to bring some of our most loved and famous works out of the galleries and onto the streets, so that even those who wouldn’t normally go into a museum can enjoy them.

Twitter is full of commuters, spotting their favourites and snapping them, and the whole enterprise is full of a summery joyousness which is completely without boundaries or economic limitations.

Willy Van Riet (1882-1927), Girl on the bank of a river, Collecton Mark Mitchell

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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