Thomas Sutcliffe: Public art needs better support

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The Independent Online

There must have been someone who laid the first brick in the Great Wall of China, and that unknown figure is surely more worthy of admiration than the person who laid the last one. At the beginning, after all, the ratio of undone to achieved must have been dismaying - a huge pyramid of yet-to-do, vertiginously balanced on a fine point of done-and-dusted. And though that metaphor may be a little grandiose for the Public Catalogue Foundation - which this week laid the fourth brick in its own grand structure - it isn't entirely unjustified.

What the foundation proposes is a comprehensive catalogue of every oil painting in public ownership in Britain - a task that is huge in theory but is proving to be even bigger in practice, as the full scale of public holdings emerges. And all of this is being done by a staff of four people, currently housed in a small basement room rented from the National Gallery.

Its present estimate is that the total catalogue will eventually run to about 80 volumes - but since the raison d'être of the entire exercise is that nobody knows for sure what's out there, that's bound to change. Hampshire has already surprised them by pupping a supplementary volume for paintings in Southampton (they've got their own Monet, you know), and early studies of Sheffield suggest that it's going to be a two-volume city in its own right.

If you're thinking - as I confess I once did - that a comprehensive catalogue of all of Sheffield's public works of art may be a slightly quixotic achievement, then you are reckoning without the peculiarly seductive charm of the catalogues themselves. The foundation has a whole set of unimpeachable academic reasons for doing what it's doing - scholarly diligence, proper stewardship of a public good, expansion of cultural knowledge etc.

But when you get the books in your hands you discover that it is also emotionally compelling. This is partly to do with the quality of the production - which means that illustrations are of fine quality even in the catalogues' standard layout of nine paintings to a page - but it's also because of the way that it lays collections open for armchair tourists.

It isn't just tourists who are susceptible to the charm either. So far the foundation has not encountered a single institution that had comprehensive data or photographs of its own holdings - which means that even the people running the show have had some pleasant surprises about what's right underneath their noses. The catalogue's format is so persuasive, in fact, that the foundation has even fielded calls from foreign museums wanting to apply the approach to their own collections - and the sense of growing momentum about the enterprise has been reflected here, too. Whereas the foundation once had to explain its ambitions to institutions and persuade them to take part, it's now beginning to get cold-called itself.

The only problem is funding. The catalogues cost roughly £55,000 each, a sum that has to be in place before printing begins. And though the foundation has currently raised something like £300,000, this has been from close to 160 donors, a gruelling and time-consuming business. Ideally, the foundation's chief executive Andrew Ellis explains, they would like funding for half of their costs, to ease the burden of piecemeal fund-raising from local authorities and charitable foundations. Super-ideally, the chairman Fred Hohler adds, this would come from three big donors pledging £100,000 each for the next three years - a lottery-win result that would hugely accelerate the progress of the operation. The engine is racing already, all they need is some way of releasing the economic brake.

Things are slowly improving. As it becomes easier to visualise what the catalogue will be once completed, it becomes easier to get larger donations (take a bow, then, Christie's, the Stavros S Niarchos Foundation, Hiscox PLC and The Garfield Weston Foundation).

Only four volumes have reached the point where it stops being difficult to imagine the project ever being finished and starts to become unthinkable that it wouldn't. But there have been baffling setbacks - including the refusal of a grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund. When you look at the HLF's stated remit this seems extraordinary. It exists, it says, to "conserve or enhance the UK's diverse heritage". Tick that box, you would have thought. And what about "making it easier for people to gain access to their heritage"? Big tick, I think, and surely another one for "Increasing learning about recording and conserving our heritage".

The next time it is approached, the HLF should think less about what the catalogues are doing now and more about what they will do in the future. It's admirable enough that the Public Catalogue Foundation is building its wall. It really shouldn't have to make the bricks out of matchsticks first.