Alarm over safety of national treasures

Monday 09 June 1997 23:02

The proposed closure of the Hatton Gallery could be dismissed as another casualty of budget constraints. But experts yesterday warned that the gallery was also representative of the wider issue of the role of art in a broader educational context, and how to safeguard Britain's national heritage, writes Jojo Moyes.

Some 300 academic bodies have renowned art collections, including the Ashmolean at Oxford, the Fitzwilliam at Cambridge and the Sainsbury Institute at the University of East Anglia.

In a time of increasingly tight funding, should resources that could be spent on lecturers go to fund a university gallery?

Bill Varley, a fine art lecturer at Newcastle, was clear that they should. "When this university goes on about first priority being teaching and research I want to lay on the floor with my feet in the air kicking and screaming with rage because that's what the gallery stands for..." he said.

"The function of a collection isn't simply for students ... it's a bit of social history, it shows the historical context of Tintoretto or whoever it might be.

"There's also, dare I say it, the pleasure principle. People can come into the gallery and have a bit of escape from the hurly burly of life outside, and get spiritual refreshment ...

"It's an added dimension to university education and to subsequent life."

There also was a danger, said Mr Varley, that if future patrons saw collections closed and bequests sold off - as was apparent at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College in 1993 - it could set an unfortunate precedent.

"No patron or trust that has bequeathed a body of work to the university is going to enjoy seeing that trust betrayed and bequests mothballed or sold off. It's a kind of insult."

John Murdoch, director of the Courtauld Institute, believes the most dangerous precedent is that of calling into question the historic concepts of university museums.

He has written a letter to the chairman of the council of Newcastle expressing his dismay at the proposal. "Clearly you must understand the context within the way decisions are made by teaching institutions, but the decision in this case imperils not only the future of a fine art gallery, but it raises all the questions on the long-term viability of the university museum as a concept," he said.

One director of a major museum, who asked not to be quoted, said there were serious questions to be addressed about the way university galleries are funded. "It's really a matter of the fitness of universities, in the present funding regime, to be in charge of major parts of national heritage," he said.

"The problem arises because universities are fundamentally educational charities. When facing financial problems that threaten their existence they are almost bound to look around and notice that their institutions are quite expensive to fund, often in very distinguished buildings, have a reasonably large staff because of security, and that they are sitting on assets worth literally billions of pounds ... it's inevitable that this will happen."

The question, he added, was addressed in a Green Paper issued last year by the Museum and Galleries Commission, which considered whether universities were the right institutions to run public collections.

"There is a case which says that existing funding systems for university museums should originate in the Department of National Heritage, rather than the Department of Education, which knows nothing about such collections. Personally I find it very persuasive."

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