Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Art of the state - and the state of the art

Artwork funded by the UK taxpayer is an enormous cultural resource - but too much of it cannot be seen by the taxpayer.

This is the beginning of a mini series which explains what art exists, who looks after it and where it can be found.

Sample page from the
West Yorkshire: Leeds Catalogue
relating to Leeds Museums & Galleries

I'm going to cover:
Today it's the turn of the Public Catalogue Foundation.

How much art are we talking about?
It is estimated that there are some 200,000 such paintings in the UK. However, at any one time some 80% of these are hidden from public view, being either in storerooms or public buildings in official use.
Public Catalogue Foundation website
The Public Catalogue Foundation suggests that the collection of publicly owned art in the UK is "arguably the greatest publicly owned collection of oil paintings in the world. "

What does the Public Catalogue Foundation do?

The Public Catalogue Foundation is a registered charity which was set up in 2003. It has three aims.

  • to create a complete digital record of the national collection of oil, tempera and acrylic paintings in public ownership.
  • to make this record accessible to the public through a series of affordable catalogues - and subsequently a free Internet website.
  • to raise funds through the sale of the catalogues for the conservation, restoration and physical exhibition of works that are rarely on display as well as gallery education related to the catalogues.
At present it is 30% of the way through cataloguing all the art.
The benefits to the collections are considerable and include free digital images, improved records, an income stream for painting conservation and education, and improved publicity. These benefits come at no cost to the collections, many of which face severe financial constraints.
What does the publicly owned art collection include?

The art is mainly oil paintings in public ownership. In this instance public ownership has been taken to mean
any paintings that are directly owned by the public purse, made accessible to the public by means of public subsidy or generally perceived to be in public ownership.
It covers paintings owned by both central government and local government and, if there is a public subsidy, those held by national museums, local authority museums, English Heritage and independent museums.

The county level analysis of paintings in public ownership specifically excludes those held and/or displayed in central government buildings as part of the Government Art Collection and MoD collections. These are to be documented on a national basis.

The principal focus is on portable oil paintings - although tempera, acrylic and mixed media paintings are also included.

There will in due course need to be a wider remit for all drawings, watercolours, and prints - not to mention sculpture, designated 'public art' and installations.

Where can this public art collection be seen?
....too many paintings across the country are held in storage, usually because there are insufficient funds and space to show them. Furthermore, very few galleries have created a complete photographic record of their paintings, let alone a comprehensive illustrated catalogue of their collections. In short, what is publicly owned is not publicly accessible.
Public Foundation catalogue website
In essence most of it can't be seen because it isn't on display or it isn't on display in offices or buildings which are accessible to the public. While this is a sad state of affairs, one can only hope that better documentation will lead to better access in the future - either digitally online or via more imaginative ways of displaying the work.

Some of the paintings are those held in civic buildings such as local government offices, town halls, guildhalls, public libraries, universities, hospitals, crematoria, fire stations and police stations. From personal experience I know that such paintings always tend to be hung in the more accessible parts of such buildings - if they are on display.

Some of the paintings in the government art collection (highlighted tomorrow) are in government offices overseas.

The real culprits in terms of failure to display art are probably the museums! The real problem at the end of the day is money and a lack of innovation around ways in which art can be displayed and made more accessible.

Where is it published?

A number of catalogues have already been published which document the art held in various counties in the UK. You can see all the catalogues published to date on their website - your home county may be one of them!

The Public Catalogue Foundation expects to publish the following volumes of Oil Paintings in Public Ownership in 2009:
  • City of London
  • Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire
  • Derbyshire
  • South Yorkshire
  • Northumberland, Tees Valley & Tyne and Wear
Where can it be seen online?

It can't - as yet.

However, in January this year it was announced that The Public Catalogue Foundation will be partnering with the BBC to ensure that all the UK's publicly owned oil paintings were placed on the internet by 2012.

Flaws in the business model

I think the business model - as described on the PDF website - may be a tad flawed. The simple fact is that raising money through paper publications is no longer a "goer" for a number of reasons:
  • First, very few people even know these collections exist never mind that they are being catalogued. I think I've only ever seen the catalogues in the National Gallery bookshop (see Art Bookshop Review: The National Gallery Bookshop) - and their presentation certainly doesn't shout out at you simply because the spines are so slim and the front covers are so restrained! Which means you've got to be a pretty dedicated browser to find them!
  • There aren't many people who will buy a catalogue if the resource is going to be made available online - as indeed it should given the very large percentage of works which are either inaccessible to the general public or simply not on display.
  • Times have changed. Print publications no longer generate revenue in the way they used to. Newspapers are having to recognise that the world is going digital as advertising revenue on the print publications takes a nose dive. Similarly, e-readers mean that books are also under pressure from digital publications and e-delivery models such as Kindle. It has to be remembered that costs associated with e-publication are also minimal when compared to the costs of publication.
  • Conservation, sustainability and the green agenda generally means that it's no longer acceptable to rely on paper-based products for revenue if alternatives exist.
Hence a different revenue model is required. What that is remains to be seen.

Personally speaking I'd be expecting the Foundation to chase down some pretty hefty sponsorship deals. It's the way most major art exhibitions get funded - and making this art accessible is just another way of giving it an exhibition!

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