At the end of next week, London’s new gallery, the Serpentine Sackler, opens near Hyde Park. Zaha Hadid has conjured an arts space out of an old gunpowder store, very nearly turning swords into ploughshares, but with this new venue, and Tate Modern’s massive extension not far behind, it is easy to think that the capital is where art is at, a London address or a rail ticket the passport to it.
This would be to overlook the fantastic wealth of provincial collections, not only in major cities, but also in small market towns where museums and galleries may not have vaults full of big hitters but often do have a handful of remarkable pieces, especially by British artists. Thus, when Dulwich Picture Gallery assembled its superlative A Crisis of Brilliance (until 22 September), it relied on loans of paintings such as Mark Gertler’s The Rabbi and his Grandchild (Southampton) and The Fruit Sorters (Leicester). At the National Portrait Gallery’s current Laura Knight show (until 13 October), the artist’s eye-catching George Bernard Shaw is on loan from Hereford, as is her Gypsies at Ascot.
The BBC’s Your Paintings online catalogue reveals first-rate paintings and sculptures countrywide, often in collections of a manageable scale. Gifts by artists (Saffron Walden’s Fry Gallery has more than 600 pieces by one-time neighbour Edward Bawden), bequests, and perspicacious purchases by enlightened curators have led to collections as rich as, say, the Towner at Eastbourne.
Then there has been the fruition of several projects begun under the last, less parsimonious, government – in Hastings, Margate, and Middlesbrough, for example. Lashings to go at, in short.
But while London basks, provincial galleries may feel a chill wind: national collections are not allowed to sell off work, local authorities may. Only a few weeks ago, Croydon Council voted to cash in 24 Chinese ceramics.
Under a government less interested in the arts than in austerity, flogging a Henry Moore, as Tower Hamlets, east London, tried to do, is an irreversible step. Meanwhile it is harder, in an inflated art market, for local councils to augment their collections, unless the Art Fund steps in. So yes, three cheers for the Serpentine Sackler. But four for small collections, from Orkney Museum, Kirkwall, to Penlee House, Penzance.