Walsall: the asset, not the liability
No apology for returning to this. This evening the great and the good of the West Midlands will be making their way into the New Art Gallery Walsall for a preview of the annual Walsall Society of Artists exhibition, picking their way through a throng of protestors, demonstrating against the local authority’s proposal to, among other things, close the gallery in four years by reducing its net revenue spending to zero after four years.
Walsall Council believes it has no choice. It has to make savings of £86m and first call on its diminishing resources has to be the statutory services, of which providing art is not one. The Arts Council, which nominated the gallery a landmark millennium project before it opened in 2000, actually contributes more than Walsall but will feel obliged to withdraw its grant too if the local authority does – although the consultation process is scheduled to end on December 9 a decision by the council is not expected till February, after the gallery’s NPO application to the Arts Council has to be in. All those things going the wrong way means curtains, March 2018.
It doesn’t have to be like that. Instead of getting together with the gallery, the Arts Council, DCMS and – oh yes – local business and higher education institutions to talk through what the options might be, Walsall Council wants to “allow the gallery the opportunity to review its entire operation, reduce costs and make efficiencies, whilst also looking to generate new business and additional income” according to the council website, and Walsall Council can wash its hands.
Added to that, according to the Walsall Express & Star, the council has failed to calculate the cost of closing the gallery. Walsall Museums & Galleries Development Trust has and its chairman David Carver has written to the council's chief executive: “The plain fact is that it would cost the council more to maintain the building and art collection if closed than it would do for the council to fund the gallery. The options in rebalancing the budget did not even address this fact”. And Walsall would have to pay back a recent refurbishment grant Arts Council grant of almost £500,000.
This is a cause celebre and it has to be dealt with properly, not by running from responsibility. The New Art Gallery was, as Nick Serota acknowledged in announcing his departure from Tate in September, a pioneer as a new-built regional gallery of national importance created in the formative years of the lottery age. It has the Garman Ryan collection of Epsteins, but also at least eight other important collections including the work of Titian, Ruskin, Cézanne, Manet, Picasso, Matisse, Sickert, and Freud. It was followed by others: mima in Middlesbrough; Turner Contemporary in Margate; Hepworth in Wakefield; Nottingham Contemporary; Studio 144 coming up in Southampton. All of them may be doing well now, but what if in 16 years from their opening they find that central government, local authority and the economy have changed out of recognition and their future is down to the panicky unresearched decision of a harassed local government official? Will they look at the hole where Walsall’s award-winning Caruso St John building once stood and turn their faces to the wall?
Well, not mima. Two years ago the Middlesbrough's arts centre and local authority made a deal with Teesside University to transfer the major responsibility, with the council still making a contribution and Arts Council support, but the institution “integrating exhibitions and collection displays with learning activities, off-site projects, commissions and community-focused initiatives”. Has it not occurred to Walsall Council to talk, even informally, with any of the West Midlands universities that might respond like Teesside University did? Or to DCMS/DCLG/ACE/No 10 to advise them firmly to do so?
And among those great and good irritably stepping gingerly around the demonstrators this evening, are there none who, addressed respectfully by local politicians instead of being confronted in this way, might have considered investing in the community through the gallery? We could start, all of us, by thinking of the New Art Gallery Walsall as a unique local and national asset instead of a liability.