Critic Brian Sewell calls for councils to sell art

Council-run galleries should sell off artworks to protect public services threatened by government spending cuts, according to a leading art critic.

Brian Sewell also believes the National Gallery could dispose of up to 800 paintings that "aren't up to scratch".

He singled out the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath for having a £10m collection that was no more than a "lucky dip".

A Museums Association spokesman said a widespread sell-off of art to support public services would be a tragedy.

In storage

Mr Sewell made his comments in response to an investigation by the BBC's Inside Out West programme.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, it found councils in Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire owned 40,506 artworks worth more than £48m in total - with 79% currently in storage.

The £48m does not include the value of 18,000 items owned by Bristol City Council, which refused to reveal any figures.

The council said it would be in breach of the agreement with its insurers if it were to disclose the value of the art it owns.

Mr Sewell said councils needed to consider selling off works of art that had no great national significance.

"I would go further than local museums," Mr Sewell explained.

"If you went round the National Gallery with a really critical eye you might get rid of 800 pictures because they simply aren't up to scratch."

A spokeswoman for the National Gallery said the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 prevented it from disposing of items, other than to other recognised national bodies.

'Inform and inspire'

Bath & North East Somerset Council (Banes) owns 11,700 works of art, of which 9,300 are currently in storage.

Image caption Bath's Victoria Art Gallery is free to the public

Mr Sewell said of Bath's Victoria Art Gallery: "I've seen it described as a lucky dip.

"You might argue that you could take anything from it and no-one would notice."

Jon Benington, manager of the gallery, defended its collection, saying: "The art collections are there to inform, to educate, to inspire.

"Once they're gone, they're gone forever. You can't bring them back."

A Banes spokeswoman said its acquisitions and disposal policy was in line with national guidelines.

"It observes the requirements of nationally accredited status, which entitles us to access grant aid to purchase artwork to improve the variety of our collection and encourage more people to visit our attractions.

"Breaching public trust by selling off parts of our collection could result in accredited status being withdrawn, meaning our ability to improve our range of art to encourage more people to visit Bath would be undermined."

Maurice Davies, of the Museums Association, said: "You should never think of selling something because you are a bit short of money for a couple of years.

"I think it's tragic when short-term reasons lead to the selling of works of art."

The full story features on Inside Out West on BBC One West at 1930 GMT on Monday.

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