Herts County Council responds to MPs complaints over £469,000 art sale

Hertfordshire County Council's decision to dispose of artwork in its collection has come under fire

Hertfordshire County Council's decision to dispose of artwork in its collection has come under fire from a group of MPs. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

The leader of Herts County Council has hit back at a group of MPs who have slammed the council’s decision to dispose of its art collection as a “major cultural loss”.

The county council took the decision to dispose of the bulk of its collection back in 2017 - with more than 450 items being sold at auction for £469,282 earlier this year.

Now, hundreds more are being given-away to schools and other organisations - which will leave the council with around 200 items.

HCC says the move means they can properly invest in their remaining pieces - ensuring that they are properly looked after and made more accessible to the public.

But the decision has been controversial and earlier this month a group of MPs - led by Washington and Sunderland West Labour MP, Sharon Hodgson - highlighted the council's action in a letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

In that letter, Ms Hodgson - and other senior members of the all-party parliamentary group on art, craft and design in education - suggested legislation surrounding the protection of cultural assets was "not adequate" in this scenario.

She further suggested the council's actions had set a "worrying precedent for other local authority collections".

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But now the leader of HCC, Cllr David Williams, has responded to the group of MPs to defend the decisions taken.

In a letter he points to the number of works that will remain in public ownership and the reduced need to loan art to schools.

He also explains that there are plans to make the remaining collection more accessible and for it to be better stored and cared for.

In the letter, Cllr Williams states: "The county council has invested significant time and effort to ensure that we do not have a significant art collection languishing in less than suitable conditions, inaccessible to our residents.

"This has led to some difficult decisions but will ultimately improve the access to the collection and investment in both nationally significant and locally significant works that will remain within our care."

Although the collection was initially set up to benefit schools, Cllr Williams says schoolchildren now have much greater access to artworks, both physically - with visits to museums and galleries now commonplace - and digitally.

He also informed the MPs that by 2012, loans to schools had dropped so significantly - with just one in five artworks on loan - that the service had already been suspended.

He also stresses that hundreds of works from the collection are to remain in public ownership.

"The county council has now gifted 175 works to educational bodies and museums in Hertfordshire, thereby keeping them in public ownership," writes Cllr Williams.

"We are now in the process of gifting over 800 more works to schools, museums and community organisations.

"Thereby retaining a larger proportion of the collections in Hertfordshire and more importantly, ensuring works can be taken out of storage and displayed as widely as possible to members of the public, making these works accessible and of far greater educational value."

In the letter he tells the MPs the 202 works are to be retained by the council - including works by Hertfordshire artists Henry Moore, John Akers, Mary Hoad and David Stowe - will be properly conserved and made more accessible to the public.

Cllr Williams' letter was sent to Sharon Hodgson MP, who is chair of the all party parliamentary group for art, craft and design in education and it was also copied to the National Society for Education in Art and Design.

After a consultation period between January and April 2018, plans were drawn up to dispose of various pieces of artwork in HCC's collection.

In June 2018, a 1,500 signature petition that called for alternative funding and an end to the plans to cut-back the collection failed to prevent the sale.

The number of pieces in the council's collection has fallen from 1,828 in 2017 - with the council estimating they will have 202 pieces remaining after their latest donations.

But, HCC will retain their four most valuable sculptures, which have an estimated value of £21.86 million.

They will also keep pieces from Herts artists including John Akers, Rory J Browne, Mary Hoad, Henry Moore and David Stowe.