Save jobs and sell the Hockney? The dilemma laying bare inequality in the arts | Charlotte Higgins | Art and design

Emilee Geist

Who knew the Royal Opera House owned a David Hockney? I certainly didn’t. The portrait of David Webster, who ran Covent Garden between 1945 and 1970, could now be the institution’s saviour as Covid-19 brings it towards the brink of collapse; soon it will be sold by Christie’s. The auction […]

Who knew the Royal Opera House owned a David Hockney? I certainly didn’t. The portrait of David Webster, who ran Covent Garden between 1945 and 1970, could now be the institution’s saviour as Covid-19 brings it towards the brink of collapse; soon it will be sold by Christie’s. The auction house hope it might make as much as £18m. “This was a really tough call,” Alex Beard, the Royal Opera House’s chief executive, told the Observer. “But we have to face the situation we are in and if we can remain viable and get through this, then we can get back to employing people in the future.”

Well, that’s where we seem to be: jobs or assets. In this particular case, surely the shade of any former boss of the Opera House would be rising from the grave to say, “Of course you should sell the damn portrait.” It’s sad, it’s part of Covent Garden’s history, it’s almost certainly displeasing to Hockney himself, but now is very much the rainy day when the portrait can help to safeguard the House’s actual work of opera and ballet, and its role as a major cultural employer.

What is concerning about the sale of the painting is not so much this particular transaction, but the wider story it tells. First, there is the fact that the Royal Opera House owns such a work at all. That it does so is yet another way in which the pandemic is revealing, in all its ugliness, the sheer inequality in the arts in Britain. I wonder how many small regional theatre companies wish they had a Hockney in the attic. Why, indeed, does the Opera House have such a thing? Evidently, because it has been – despite its many lurches towards disaster over the years – perhaps the most prosperous and glamorous of any British publicly funded arts organisation since the war. (Though it did not use any of its public grant to commission Hockney; the work was funded, extraordinarily given its current market value, through a staff whip-round.)

The second problem with the Hockney sale is the precedent it sets, in an era when the economic mismatch between the public realm on the one hand, and privately held capital on the other, is so extreme. This yawning gulf is exemplified by the upper end of the art market, where the global super-rich alone have their pick of art works that sell for sums that most of us can barely grasp. No wonder, in the budget-slashing years that followed the financial crisis of 2008, certain eyes in local councils lit up when it became clear how much could be raised if you chose to flog a few cultural assets. Notoriously, the ex-mayor of Tower Hamlets in London tried to sell off the beloved Henry Moore sculpture affectionately known as Old Flo. In 2016, Kirklees Council in Yorkshire toyed with selling a Francis Bacon that experts thought could have a sale value or £40m or even £60m.

Neither of these sales happened in the end, but it’s clear that the economic damage wrought by Covid-19 is going to present some museums and local authorities in the UK with appalling dilemmas. At London’s privately funded but public-facing Royal Academy of Arts, artists were recently reported to have been urging the institution to sell its Michelangelo Tondo – a remarkable sculpture given to the institution in 1829. That could solve all of its financial problems at a stroke, Covid-19-related and otherwise, including saving 150 jobs. But a Michelangelo Tondo isn’t an asset. It is a part of the institution’s patrimony, a patrimony to which it owes a responsibility. As a spokeswoman put it, “It is our duty to look after our permanent collection, for current and future generations to enjoy.” Nevertheless, you could powerfully contend, as some Academicians are reportedly doing, that it’s morally repugnant to allow your employees to be staring universal credit in the face just because you are reluctant to deaccession (the artworld euphemism for “flog”) a “lump of marble”.

In the US, it’s already happening: last month the cash-strapped Brooklyn Museum announced that it would be consigning for sale a dozen works including paintings by Cranach, Courbet, Corot and a portrait attributed to Lorenzo Costa; Sotheby’s will auction them on 15 October. The Association of Art Museum Directors in the US sets down a fairly strict set of guidelines when it comes to selling collection items: usually it can be done only to fund the purchase of other works of art, rather than to cover running costs. But it relaxed its rules in September owing to the Covid-19 crisis; with little or no public funding to fall back on, US museums are either reliant on the generosity of donors to see them through, or may have little option but to put works up for sale.

Who are the winners in all this? The auction houses, of course, and the global super-rich who will now have a fresh crop of museum-quality works to harvest and then squirrel away in their mansions or bank vaults. David Hockney, when I asked him what I thought of the sale of his works, simply offered two quotations from Oscar Wilde: “It is only the shallow who don’t judge by appearance – the mystery of the world is in the visible not the invisible,” was the first. I understood this to be a reminder that the true value of a work of visual art is not its market value, but rather resides in its quality as a thing to be seen, to be looked at. The second Wildeism was this: “The only person who likes all kinds of art is an auctioneer,” an aperçu that requires no explanation.

Selling off cultural assets may be the only choice in dire circumstances. But the public will be the losers.

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