An artist and a historian are united in their calls for Kirklees Council to sell off a high-value painting by Francis Bacon.
But the millions that could cascade into the council’s coffers should not be squandered on inappropriate projects, they say.
The leader of Kirklees Council has called for a public debate to discuss all options around Figure Study II, a painting gifted to Batley Art Gallery in the 1950s and which art experts believe could be worth up to £60 million.
As opinion ricochets back and forth watercolourist Ashley Jackson has thrown his weight behind a future sale.
“It depends how much you need the money– the council are damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” said the 73-year-old.
“There comes a time when things have to be sold. I would not want to sell it but when you see people suffering and you can get some money for it, then sell it.
“If the money goes to the right causes, then it will be worth it. It should go to human costs. Nine times out of ten it will end up putting new bulbs in lamp posts and fixing holes in the road. I am against that.
“Francis Bacon would be chuffed to think that his work could be valued at that price and was going to help people. Take it down to Sotheby’s. They will come from all over the world for it.”
Historian Malcolm Haigh, 80, has spent his life championing Batley.
He firmly believes any funds made from the sale of the painting should be pumped back into Batley.
“If Kirklees Council does go ahead and sells it then it should be a point that whatever is raised is used in Batley for special projects and make sure that other places such as Oakwell Hall are maintained as public museums.
“We should not just allow the money to be added to Kirklees’ funds and disappear with no lasting benefit to the town,” he said.
He added: “I can see the reason behind it and that’s the sad part about that particular painting. If we cannot exhibit it in safe surroundings then maybe it would be right to sell it off.”
Huddersfield Art Gallery is the only secure space in Kirklees with the appropriate environmental conditions to be able to display the Bacon painting. However, it spends much of its time in storage or on loan to other galleries, though it is not thought that this raises any revenue towards its upkeep and associated insurance costs.
In 2011 a replica of the painting was hung in Batley Art Gallery.
Selling off a classic painting by Francis Bacon would not save the museums axed under Government austerity cuts, says a top Kirklees councillor.
Council cabinet member Clr Graham Turner said Dewsbury Museum and Red House Museum in Gomersal were closed for good and that the ruling Labour group has “no intention of selling anything” from the authority’s art collection.
The prospect of selling the Francis Bacon painting Figure Study II, valued by Kirklees art staff at £19.5 million but potentially worth three times that amount when set against recent international auction sales, has been raised as a means of ploughing money back into beleaguered services.
Kirklees has seen its £1 million arts budget slashed in half. Tolson Museum in Huddersfield is the third site earmarked for closure.
But Clr Turner has warned against using high-value art as a short-term buffer to safeguard facilities and jobs, arguing that the Bacon painting, gifted to Batley Art Gallery in the 1950s, is protected by a restrictive covenant that prevents it being sold.
“From a purely personal point of view I don’t want to sell any of the art,” he said. “We don’t want to become a cultural desert. Why would we want to dismantle our collection? We are not heathens. We just have to make the best of our budget and there has to be a cultural offer. We have no intention of selling anything from the art gallery.”
And he dismissed suggestions that, in the event of a sale, Kirklees’ museums could be re-opened.
“I cannot foresee a situation where we could re-open if we wanted to. I genuinely think that what has gone has gone.”
He added: “If the Contemporary Art Society gave (the Bacon painting) in perpetuity then it’s interesting. That is not my understanding.”
He said the notion of mounting a legal challenge was “not on the agenda at the moment”.
“You would not make any decision until you were 100 per cent sure what is in the covenant and then take the decision over whether it was worth mounting a legal challenge. It would be very expensive. We would have to be very careful. It would take a big discussion with senior officers at the council.
“If there is a covenant and it’s watertight then we would have to speak with a QC. Would that be a waste of taxpayers’ money?”
The council is not intending to mothball Dewsbury Museum or Red House. Instead it is looking at disposal as an asset transfer or to a community organisation. If that cannot be made to work then as a possible sale.