Controversial council plans to sell cherished pieces from Southampton City Art Gallery's collection as part of funding for a new £15 million maritime museum have been attacked after the artworks under threat were officially revealed.
Southampton City Council is aiming to raise between £2 million and £4 million from early 20th century equestrian painter Alfred J Munning's After the Race.
One of two bronzes by Auguste Rodin – the £1.5 million-rated Eve or the £400,000 Crouching Woman – will also go under the hammer to help pay for the Sea City Museum, which is scheduled to open as part of Southampton’s Cultural Quarter in 2012.
Three pieces from Southampton City Art Gallery's may be sold to help boost funds for a new maritime museum as part of a Cultural Quarter scheduled for 2012
Councillor John Hannides, Cabinet Member for Leisure, Culture and Heritage, said a curatorial review of "candidate items for disposal" had identified the works as being "of low significance."
"They are both supporting cast to the core strength of the collection, which is British modern and contemporary 20th and 21st century art," he said. "The academic, traditional style of Munnings' work is in marked contrast to the modern theme of the collection, and it is therefore rarely displayed because it does not contextualise other works.”
Councillor Hannides added that a new heritage museum and re-energised City Art Gallery are major elements in the transformation of the city centre, complementing the development of a new arts complex and Guildhall Square.
“We are talking to a host of professional bodies to look at the viability of selling selected items from the council’s art work to raise some funds," he added.
Southampton Test MP Alan Whitehead said the sales were "like cutting a tree down".
"The more I think about (the sales), the more I think it is an outstandingly bad idea," he said. "The image emerges of some dusty old watercolours being dragged out of the cupboard they've been lying in for years, given a quick wipe and sent to the auction.
"The problem with this image is that it isn't true, and even if it was partly right, there are big implications on selling the collection anyway.
Rodin's Eve is expected to earn between £1 million and £1.5 million. Picture Joseph Edward Tugwell
"These aren't just items that can be sold to raise cash for heritage,” he added. “They are already our city's heritage. Many pieces have been donated to the Gallery or have been bought through bequests stipulating that the money should be used to add to that heritage.
"I don't imagine that many more donations or bequests will come to Southampton if it is widely thought that the city will sell purchases off to the highest bidder as the fancy takes them."
Campaigning group Save Our Collection has collected hundreds of signatures, including that of artist Bridget Riley, whose work is featured in the city’s collection, in an online petition accusing the Council of ignoring their "duty of care" for the works.
"The claim that the majority of the collection lies unseen in a vault is a myth to justify the plans," said Southampton Itchen MP John Denham, urging constituents to sign the paper.
"The collection is regularly rotated, and the pieces ear-marked for selling have all recently been on public display. The Tories' intention to cut into Southampton's internationally-renowned public art collection has outraged residents."
Munning's After the Race is worth between £2 million and £4 million. Picture Joseph Edward Tugwell
Alec Samuels, Leader of the Council, responded bluntly to an opposition motion calling the plan "a betrayal of public trust.”
"If we don't sell some paintings, we don't get a heritage centre,” he said. “We've made our choice. No picture will be sold if it's unlawful to do so, and if it were to be sold it would go to an appropriate good home.
“These decisions have not been taken lightly. The iconic Heritage Museum will bring many more people to the Cultural Quarter and the old and new art galleries.
"The Heritage Lottery Fund has offered £5 million, £5 million can be raised from business and sponsors, and the remaining £5 million falls to the City Council, which has no money for such a project.”
Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones described the news as “a dark day for museums.” “By this logic, no work of art in a British public collection is safe," he added.
An Art Fund statement echoed his warning, advising the Council to explore other avenues of funding. "Raising the funds in part by selling important artworks from the Gallery sets a dangerous precedent, effectively sanctioning the disposal of art from publicly-owned collections to support other areas of public sector provision," it said.
The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council has also dismissed "inaccurate" rumours suggesting the plans could jeopardise the Gallery's Designated Collection status.
"We will work closely with the city and other experts to help bring about an outcome that strikes an appropriate balance between maintaining the collections and enabling people of all ages and backgrounds to engage with the stories that historic objects can tell," said MLA Director Roy Clare.
Save Our Collection has set up a Facebook group against the scheme, where plans for protests against the council, which has promised a public meeting, are underway.