IT’S the internationally renowned gallery that has already attracted controversy over the thousands of pieces of publicly owned artwork that lie hidden in council vaults.

Now Southampton citizens could be asked to pay to get a glimpse of the 3,500-piece art collection under council plans to bring in a private firm to run the city’s art gallery.

Cash strapped Tory council leaders say the move will end a £1,000 a day public subsidy for the attraction – but admit charges could be introduced.

Interested private firms are bidding for a £7m contract for the right to manage the art gallery and the Tudor House Museum for up to 20 years.

Bids are also being considered for a separate £19m contract to run the city’s new £15m Sea City Museum, which will house Titanic exhibitions to mark the centenary next year of the tragic loss of the liner.

The council is also open to offers from firms for a bumper £26m contract to run all three.

The deals are aimed to protect the taxpayer from subsidising the attractions – but there are already fears that privatisation is not the best way to safeguard the city’s £180m art collection.

Tory council leisure boss John Hannides stressed the contracts, valued on predicted income from the attractions, will cover maintenance, marketing, venue hire, retail, and catering and not the collections “for the time being”.

But Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Adrian Vinson said: “The three are at the heart of our city’s cultural identity and heritage. I would need some convincing that any financial benefits could be reconciled with adequately safeguarding these jewels in our crown for the benefit of citizens and visitors.”

A decision on the contracts is expected to be made by council chiefs in June. Cllr Hannides said a number of UK venue operators with proven track records had submitted bids.

“We are at the advanced stages or making our assessments of the tenders,”

he said. “We are looking to take advantage of the expertise that can arise from operators who have both the marketing resources and management capabilities that would be difficult to offer within the public sector.”

Cllr Hannides said the council would need to agree to any new charges “which might take the form of entry at all times or charging for entry when there are special exhibitions.”

He insisted while private firms would take on “front of house” duties the council will “for the time being”

retain responsibility for the collections and exhibitions. But he did not rule out outsourcing “curatorial functions” in the future.

Labour MP for Southampton Test Alan Whitehead said: “Considering how stretched our budgets already are, it’s questionable for the council to sink even more money into outsourcing at this stage.

“What’s even more concerning is that future council administrations could be locked into hastily written contracts that could end up costing us all more in the long term.”

The Southampton art collection is considered the fourth most significant outside London, Birmingham and Manchester. It boasts works by Turner, Lowry, Monet and Angel of the North creator Antony Gormley, although most of the sprawling collection is hidden in council vaults.

The council last year shelved plans to raise £5m by selling off work by French sculptor Auguste Rodin and British painter Sir Alfred Munnings to help fund the Titanic Museum, which is expected to pull in more than 150,000 visitors a year.

A 20-year lease on Southampton’s Maritime Museum building, which hosts the city’s current Titanic exhibition, has been put up for sale. The grade I listed Medieval Wool House could become a pub, café, restaurant or offices. It has been propped up by a hefty subsidy of £5 per visitor as numbers have plummeted.