The purpose of this petition is to ask the British Government to help save Southampton’s art collection by creating an independent trust to safeguard it and to take away the threat of pieces being sold by Southampton City Council. This is a highly important case for all publicly owned art in the country because if any pieces from Southampton’s collection are sold it will open the floodgates and change the way that all public art is handled. It is a test case and being watched by authorities and museums across the UK and there is potential to create ripples across the country’s publicly owned art collections. Southampton's collection is not just an asset to Southampton but to the entire country as the collection has been designated by the government as being of 'national pre-eminence'.
Southampton has an art collection worth up to around £200m but it has been under threat for a number of years due to successive city councils trying to sell pieces to fund unrelated council schemes and services. This is the same story up and down the country with art collections in public ownership. The attempts to sell pieces from Southampton alone have been condemned by both the Museums Association and the Tate.
The collection was originally made possible by one resident over a century ago when he bequeathed his personal art collection to the city and a trust fund to build an art gallery, a school of art and to purchase more works of art to bring art to the people of Southampton for free. It was this initial generosity that formed the basis of the incredible collection we see today. Throughout the years other generous individuals have bequeathed and made donations and many important pieces have been purchased. The current collection was created by city residents for the people of the city with no involvement from the council. Southampton City councillors were originally made trustees of the collection simply because somebody had to safeguard it and they were trusted to do so. In recent years they have been trying to sell high value pieces to fund various things from a museum and an ‘arts complex’ (a private development of apartments, cafes and studio space to rent) to funding council services.
Selling pieces from the collection would be illegal due to the conditions attached. The council have been trying to find a way around these legalities and in the process severely damaging the collection’s reputation. The trust allows for pieces to be sold, if needed, solely if the proceeds support the collection 100% by purchasing new pieces or restoring other pieces in the collection. Not to fund unrelated council schemes and services.
The leader of Southampton City Council, Councillor Simon Letts wrote to Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries and Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and asked for the trust rules to be relaxed so pieces could be sold to fund other schemes and services and for the council not to suffer harsh financial penalties if they did so. This request was refused but it has not stopped the council's persistence in trying to find ways to sell pieces. Most recently they have planned a staged 'debate' by excluding many people of the city by selling tickets to the debate and it's a chance for a debate between the council and ‘local businesses’ and opposing professional art institutions. The debate was never intended to include the views of the people of the city as the Art Gallery was the planned venue and capacity is limited.
Any change in rules and any sell would have catastrophic and damaging consequences for all collections in public ownership throughout the country as a prescedence would then be set for local councils and museums to sell pieces from collections to fund unrelated schemes and services. The result would be diminished collections and reputational damage which would lead to the withdrawal of future funding & bequests to enhance or restore existing collections.
The purpose of this petition is to escalate this to a higher government level in the hope that the support would help form a truly independent trust to be sole custodians of Southampton’s collection and all future decisions regarding the collection are made by them entirely for the benefit of the collection. It is then hoped that this would set a positive precedence for collections in public ownership to follow so they are cared for, enhanced and used to their full potential with no conflicting influence motivated by financial or political gain.