IT was the controversial plan that saw a city labelled as philistines by the art world.

But now the prospect of Southampton council chiefs selling off valuable masterpieces lying hidden in Civic Centre vaults could be back on the agenda – two years after the money-making move was dropped in the face of opposition.

The city’s former Tory leisure boss will next week ask councillors to look again at proposals to raise vital cash by putting pieces of art up for sale, this time to raise up to £7m to help create 300 jobs by kick-starting Southampton’s planned flagship £21m arts complex.

More than 2,500 people signed a petition in 2010 calling on Southampton City Council’s then-Conservative administration to call off its plans to raise £5m for the SeaCity Museum by putting works by French sculptor Auguste Rodin and British painter Sir Alfred Munnings on the market.

The move also received widespread condemnation from the art world, with the Museums Association and the Tate both opposing the sale and campaigners arguing it would be illegal.

But Cllr John Hannides believes selling publiclyowned art is no longer “quite the taboo it was”, and wants to see parts of the largely-hidden 3,500-piece collection assessed to see if they could help raise up to £7m to get the arts complex scheme moving.

He said: “In these straitened times it’s clear there are going to be major cutbacks coming, so my feeling is we can justifiably sell items from the collection to alleviate that financial pressure so we are investing in the arts and culture in Southampton.

“Through selling art the council can use its money to safeguard frontline services.”

Cllr Hannides said he believes many of the conditions that prevented the sale no longer exist, but pieces would only be sold under certain conditions.

He said: “Any sale would be conditional on the items not being part of the core collection, that we adhere to any terms of relevant trusts or covenants and that it doesn’t in any way damage the gallery’s status as having a national collection.

“The last time we proposed this we were seen as cutting edge trailblazers, but since then there have been a number of examples of galleries selling items from a collection, and in fact since this issue was first raised the Art Gallery has been selling items, but they’ve been low value items.

“The council is committed to the arts complex and there’s no question in any way it would not keep its commitment, but in the very tough financial climate which has got progressively worse, the money that needs to be found for the arts complex can be found through selling art.

“We’re hoping all parties will see the merits.

“We’ve got some 3,500 items in the collection and only 250 can ever be viewed at any one time.

“Even the Rodin sculpture that some people were worried about had been lent to a gallery in Norwich for 20 years and nobody asked its whereabouts in that period, which puts it in perspective.”

The long-promised arts complex on the former Tyrell & Green site is intended to be the jewel in the crown of the city’s growing cultural quarter.

The Arts Council awarded a £5.7m grant for the complex, which will house the Hansard Gallery and film production outfit City Eye, plus £1.5m towards amended art gallery plans.

The Nuffield Theatre and Art Asia were controversially written out of the project in a bid to improve its viability.

The planned ‘jewel in the crown’ of the city’s arts scene

SOUTHAMPTON’S arts complex has been in the planning for a decade, but has still yet to get off
the ground.

Ambitious plans to create 300 jobs through the £40m redevelopment of the site of the  now demolished Tyrrell & Green department store in Northern Above Bar were given the go-ahead
last September.

The £21m arts complex, including two separate theatre auditoriums with capacity for 450 and 120 people, and an art gallery and studios for use by John Hansard Gallery and City Eye, would be part of a tenstorey development overlooking Guildhall Square.

Planning permission was granted to the Duke of Westminster’s property company, Grosvenor, to also build six restaurants, cafes or bars, 29 flats and a new 12-metre wide street linking Andrews (East) Park with the revamped Guildhall Square.

Grosvenor development manager Alex Robinson said at the time contractors could be on site by summer 2012, meaning the arts complex would open in 2015, but work has yet to begin.

In 2008, a proposal by developer City Lofts to build the complex within two landmark towers was scrapped because of the recession.

The Labour Reaction

SOUTHAMPTON’S leisure boss last night dismissed the prospect of reviving the Conservatives’ “ham-fisted” attempts to sell off art.

Labour councillor Warwick Payne said the “legal minefield” surrounding the ownership of Southampton’s art collection, which he insisted hadn’t changed since the last efforts, probably makes a fresh effort to sell “unworkable”.

Cllr Payne said the council is keen to see the arts complex completed, and wants to explore all potential ways of raising cash without impacting on taxpayers.

But while those include finding ways of using works of art to generate cash through loans, they would not be sold.

He said: “The Tories hit a brick wall in terms of trying to sell some of the city’s art collection.

“The fact that they failed in doing so just highlighted that they achieved nothing except damaging Southampton’s reputation amongst the art world and taking up a lot of officers’ hours for no return.”