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Cash-Strapped UK Government Should Sell Not Buy Artwork

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The last government started buying up works of art in the style of the spoiled wife of some Russian oligarch desperate for her Mayfair mansion to rival the likes of the Louvre.

As the end of Labour's time in power approached, spending on the Government Art Collection really started to escalate. In 2008/09, for example, those running the collection spent just over £250,000 on buying artwork, with other parts of the government buying a further £154,000 worth. A further £160,000 was spent commissioning new works of art from scratch. By 2007/08 this meant almost 100 pieces were being added each year, as a Minister confirmed at the time.

We are not discussing here the artwork that hangs in our great museums and art galleries. The items in the Government Art Collection are primarily used in ministerial offices, government buildings, embassies and ambassadors' residencies around the globe.

I like that the Coalition Government seems intent on enabling more people to see items from the collection, but more importantly it is good to see that they are taking a scythe to this spending, introducing a two-year moratorium on the purchase of any further artwork.

Where I part company with the Coalition is that I would maintain that moratorium beyond the current planned two-year period. I would cancel the pencilled-in budget of £114,000 to be spent on buying artwork in 2013/14 and the £119,000 planned for the year after.

This spending on new art for the collection is unnecessary, not least because, as the culture secretary confirmed last month, a third of all the works of art are currently just sitting, gathering dust in storage.

Even without buying any new works, the taxpayer will still pay out £347,000 this year alone just to maintain the collection, no doubt much of it spent on a 15-strong workforce. According to a statement made by a minister last month, since last year's General Election almost £204,000 had been spent on framing works of art in the collection, and a further £13,136 hanging them. The cost of delivering and installing the specific pieces of art chosen by ministers for their offices (you can find out who wanted what HERE) is estimated at £22,246.

In fact, I'd go further. Given that well over 4,000 pieces are in storage - a third of the total - I'd sell a good number of them, perhaps as many as 2,000. Sure, whilst the standard line is that the collection is not valued, it has been confirmed in the past that in-house experts know which pieces are the best ones. Indeed, an example of the value of some is given by the reported theft, in 2001, of five paintings worth a combined £240,000 (or an average of £48,000 each). Added to that, even the average pieces are worth a bob or two; the more modest, average value of each of the 719 pieces of art bought for the Government Art Collection in the decade from 1998/99 to 2007/08 was just over £3,000.

I was criticised after I suggested a similar course of action for the museum and art gallery in my home city of Plymouth, but modest asset sales like this have their place. It won't eliminate the budget deficit, that's for sure, but it'll help, and right now we need all the help we can get.

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