● Councils have £75m worth of art... much of it in storage

● Unions want it sold to ease the threat of jobs being axed

● Arts leaders say cultural heritage would be destroyed

UNIONS have called for cashstrapped councils to consider selling art kept in long-term storage, after The Northern Echo discovered that the region’s local authorities own collections worth more than £75m.

But arts groups have warned that losing carefully built up collections could have devastating effects on education, tourism and the region’s cultural heritage.

The news comes as councils face the toughest public spending squeeze for decades, after the Government announced swingeing cuts to cope with the economic downturn.

A total of £75,558,553 worth of paintings, sculptures and other artefacts are owned by the region’s 13 councils.

The largest collections are: ● Newcastle – £26,500,000; ● Middlesbrough – £25,046,581; ● Durham – £8,000,000; ● Sunderland – £7,100,000; ● Hartlepool – £6,789,000.

Merv Butler, chairman of Unison’s local government group, said councils should do what they can to avoid making people redundant.

“Local authorities are facing a severe financial situation and we need to look at all options to avoid cutting jobs,”

he said.

“If there are assets that could be realised to provide direct support for revenue grants or to boost resources, they should consider that this is the time to take a serious look at it.”

The figures were released following Freedom of Information requests submitted by The Northern Echo.

Of the remaining authorities in the North-East, Darlington’s collection is worth £844,395, Stockton’s between £500,000 and £1m, Redcar and Cleveland’s £240,000, North Tyneside £25,266 and South Tyneside £13,311. North Yorkshire owns no art, while Northumberland has not recorded the value of its collection.

Gateshead Council has not responded.

The figures are values recorded for insurance purposes, and do not reflect market value, which could be higher or lower.

Mark Robinson, the executive director of Arts Council England North-East said that the region’s cultural heritage could be “destroyed” by shortterm financial decisions.

“Art collections are valuable assets for the public good,” he said. “They represent the heritage of our region and our people, and as such should not be dispersed for temporary benefit.

“Although the public sector faces challenges, it needs to respond to them in ways which protect our heritage and our future.

“The role of arts collections in attracting visitors to the region also needs to be remembered.

This has a direct economic benefit as well as making our region a more attractive place to live, work and invest in.

“If we destroy quality of life by simply focusing on what are deemed to be essential front line services, we risk making the region a less attractive place at exactly the time we need to make the most of all our assets.”

The figures do not include independent galleries such as the Bowes Museum, in Barnard Castle, and the Baltic art gallery, in Gateshead.

Hartlepool owns the 1959 oil painting Shell Building Site, by Frank Auerbach, which is on loan to the Courtauld gallery, London. One of Newcastle’s prized assets, The Breton Shepherdess by Paul Gauguin, is on display in The Laing.

Other works are on display at venues including mima in Middlesbrough, and Durham City’s DLI Museum and Art Gallery, but many are kept under lock and key in longterm storage.

Of Hartlepool’s 1,062 pieces, most are not on display, Redcar and Cleveland has 1,000 in storage, although Stockton displays 542 of its 566-strong collection. Darlington has a collection of 543 items, but only 99 are on show.

Durham has 43 works by high-profile artists in storage, including a Norman Cornish depiction of a Spennymoor bar scene insured for £3,000 and an industrial scene by LS Lowry worth about £5,500.

“We are in an extremely tough position across the North-East,” Mr Butler said.

“Some of the last two years’ settlements were very low and the demand on services, particularly adult care and children’s services, have been outstripping the money available.

“All options should be explored before redundancies are announced.”

Richard Stokoe, of the Local Government Association, said selling art could prove unpopular with local tax payers.

“When Bury Council tried to sell a Lowry a few years ago, there was a huge outcry,” he said.

“Even if North-East councils sold all £74m worth of art, the market is depressed, so they might not maximise the value to the taxpayer.

“If works of art go into the hands of private collectors, it is lost for good.”

Middlesbrough artist Margaret Shields said a number of her works were in storage.

“They’re just in limbo somewhere,”

she said. “Some galleries, like mima, regularly contribute pieces from their own collections to exhibitions.

At least that way, they are being recycled, rather than kept hidden away.

“Some collections are just being forgotten about.”