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House of Lords Hansard
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16 January 2017
Volume 778

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will take steps to ensure the future of the New Art Gallery, Walsall.

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My Lords, the Government support arts and culture in Walsall through investment by Arts Council England, which is currently working closely with Walsall Council and local cultural organisations on the New Art Gallery’s future, helping culture to continue to flourish in Walsall. Arts Council England met the council in December and awaits the gallery’s application to the national portfolio. Arts Council England has agreed in principle up to £12,000 match funding to explore potential new fundraising and philanthropy opportunities and governance and management models.

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My Lords, when are the Government going to allow councils enough money to do their job properly? The threat of closure of our regional museums is the direct result of continuing cuts to local government funding. Would the Minister agree that if the New Art Gallery Walsall, a museum of international stature, were to close, it would be a terrible waste of a significant public investment, not least for a region which in these times needs as much support as possible?

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Of course I agree that it would be a terrible waste of the considerable amount of public money that Arts Council England has put into the New Art Gallery. That is why it is working very hard to prevent exactly that occurring. We want to find new methods of joint partnership arrangements, not only with Arts Council England but with other local organisations, to enable art galleries such as the New Art Gallery to continue.

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My Lords, given that the New Art Gallery Walsall was absolutely fundamental to the regeneration of Walsall town centre, that it houses a world-renowned collection and that it was a brilliant example of collaboration between the local authority, the art gallery and the Government—not forgetting the European Union, which put substantial money into it—would it not be an act of cultural vandalism if it were not allowed and encouraged to survive?

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I completely agree that it is a very good thing that local arts organisations are absolutely key to the regeneration and ongoing prosperity of an area. Just to put the amount of money we are talking about in Walsall into perspective, the proposed reduction is £163,000 a year in the next year, but Arts Council England is putting in nearly five times as much as that—£880,000.

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My Lords, I add my plea to those of the noble Earl and the other speaker and the thousands of people in the Walsall area in the West Midlands who, like me, have been inspired and delighted by this literally state-of-the-art gallery, which is only 15 years old. I suggest that this is not necessarily the moment to cast blame on the local council, which in turn is blaming the government cuts, or central government, who are squeezing council budgets. However, the people of Walsall have very little in the way of cultural facilities to inspire them. I ask the Minister to please use his creativity to help us to find a solution.

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DMCS is working with Arts Council England to try to address these problems and get some kind of partnership with other organisations. However, there are other examples of local councils that are suffering from cuts, as all local councils have. For example, in Stoke-on-Trent, which is a place that several noble Lords may be visiting soon, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery was awarded £300,000 to support local arts and cultural organisations, led by Stoke-on-Trent City Council, to team up with partners including Visit Stoke and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. That is an example of where joint working together can make a difference.

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Given that the birthplace of Jerome K Jerome was Walsall, perhaps the Government could do a bit better than “three men in a boat” in actually supporting these important sculptural, as well as painting, collections.

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I have already said that the Government are putting in a considerable amount of money. In the last five years, I think we have spent £12 million in the area of Walsall.

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My Lords, while endorsing everything that has been said about the Walsall gallery, which I know, I ask my noble friend to reflect that local authorities are under great pressure all over the country. Can something be done fairly expeditiously to try to ensure that other galleries currently under threat do not go under? If we deprive people of the spiritual sustenance that galleries and museums bring, we are impoverishing them.

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I completely agree with my noble friend. That is why the DCMS culture White Paper was so keen on highlighting the importance to local communities of the arts and heritage sector. However, it is right that when difficult decisions are made, they should be made by local people, not centrally by Ministers.

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Could the Minister confirm that if there is a problem sufficient to force the closure of this wonderful gallery, the Arts Council will not be obliged to withdraw its match funding of at least £900,000 a year or—this is really important—to claw back some of the initial capital grant towards the building and the £500,000 refurbishment that it had recently?

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The Arts Council funding is a partnership. In what I sincerely hope is the unlikely event of it closing, obviously there would be a problem in giving that money to an art gallery that was not open. However, I do not want to think about that. There is a very good incentive for local partners to keep this very good art gallery going. It has some amazing and world-class art in it, and it should be encouraged.