SOUTHAMPTON’S great art sell-off has been delayed because of growing pressure from the art world.

The city council has told the UK’s most influential cultural bodies it will explore other ways to fund its proposed Sea City Museum.

It means the unprecedented art sale will now only go ahead in the second half of next year if alternative funding can still not be found.

Campaigners last night said the development was a major step forward to save the art.

Tory council chiefs had wanted to sell a painting by Arthur Munnings and a sculpture by Auguste Rodin to raise £5m towards the £15m heritage centre and expanded art gallery at the Civic Centre.

The controversial proposal followed a three-year Daily Echo campaign for some publicly owned art from the £180m collection to be sold to fund new culture projects.

It provoked condemnation from the powerful Museums Association (MA), who were not convinced it was the only way the authority could pay for the museum.

Cllr John Hannides, Cabinet member for leisure, culture and heritage, said the MA had been given an assurance that no art would be sold before July 2010.

He said: “We will once again look at our capital programme to see if there is any scope that may be of assistance in supporting the project. We will also continue dialogue with organisations that may lead to possible additional funding.”

The delay will not affect the timetable for the building of the museum, which is due to open in 2012 on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster. However whether it goes ahead at all depends on the council raising an additional £5m on top of contributions from Lottery funding.

The project has already received £500,000 in funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and a bid for a further £4.5m will be submitted later this month.

Mary Lloyd, from the campaign group Save Our Collection, said: “This is a wonderful step forward. I would love to see the council find another way to fund the museum.”

Labour politicians have called on their Tory counterparts to borrow the millions needed to pay for the museum.

A final decision on whether the sale should go ahead has also been delayed until the New Year as the council is still awaiting approval from the Attorney General.

Last month the council asked Baroness Scotland, the Government’s chief legal advisor, to rule on whether the sale was in the “public interest”.

Cllr Hannides said the council was forced to sell the art after cash earmarked for the museum had been diverted to help pay for the proposed Southampton New Arts Complex and Guildhall Square.

City taxpayers were left to foot the £4.6m bill for the revamp of Guildhall Square after Seeda, the Government quango that had promised to pay for it, withdrew its funding.