Cutting off your nose to spite your face could be one way of describing Bury Council’s decision to auction off its painting, The Riverbank, by one of England’s best-loved artists, LS Lowry. The council now risks expulsion from the Museums Association and the government's Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). It would be only the second-ever such expulsion if Bury goes ahead with the sell-off. The loss of accreditation would mean that Bury Museum and Art Gallery stands to lose considerable amounts of public funding. The Museum Association’s director, Mark Taylor, interviewed yesterday on BBC Radio 4, described the sale due to take place in two weeks’ time, as “deeply irresponsible” and as a “breach of trust”. Lowry’s “matchstick men” paintings are particularly treasured in the artist’s native Lancashire and a key part of the local sense of identity.
And yet, surely Bury council should be commended and not condemned for its entrepreneurial spirit. Under New Labour, following in the Tories’ footsteps, local authorities, have been starved of funds and encouraged – indeed virtually forced – to go down the road of “Private Finance Initiatives” to fund public projects. Public libraries, museums and sports facilities have been cannibalised, minimised or sold off. Bury is clearly a go-getting council after New Labour’s heart. It has recently approved a £58 million mixed-use master plan of offices, apartments, a hotel and retail space on top of Bury town centre’s last remaining piece of open green space. The plan is to have a new multi-story car park and a 14-story concrete tower block. In addition the government has just given the nod to a £20 million plan to build a school and 1,000 homes in the Radcliffe district of the town. Wayne Campbell, Bury Council leader, says that the alternatives to the Lowry sale are “redundancies and closures of valued services”. So why cling to things from the past when you can raise £500,000 by selling a canvas? Shouldn’t preserving and enhancing culture be balanced against “sound commercial initiatives”? Is it not a good thing to raise money and try to fill the £10m deficit in the council’s books, even if it does mean that Bury’s only Lowry may go out of public ownership, possibly leaving British shores forever?
Seriously, the threat hanging over Bury’s Lowry is symbolic of the cavalier treatment of Britain’s former industrial heritage and local authority collections, especially in working class areas outside the privileged cultural “hubs” (where, by the way, it costs £12 to get into the National Gallery’s Velazquez exhibition). Earlier this year, British museums joined forces to ask the government for an extra £115m a year at what they say is a "critical time" for their services. A Manifesto for Museums, contained a warning that large London attractions may not be able to keep going at their present levels. An extra £50m a year is needed to keep current services running, it said. Another £15m is also needed for work with regional museums - which require an extra £35m on their own, it said. A further £15m per year is required to buy new objects, it added. Meanwhile, Bury is going ahead with its Lowry sale.
Corinna Lotz, culture editor