Durham’s £2 million unaudited art bill revealed

By Jack Taylor, Julia Atherley and Alex Leggatt Over £2 million of University money was invested in works of art between 2008 and 2015 without being audited properly, a freedom of information request has revealed. The same request revealed that between 2008-2013 the University allowed over £1.5 million worth of artwork to be purchased through Henry Dyson Fine Art Ltd, the private business owned by the University’s own Keeper of the Fine Art, Henry Dyson. The Keeper of Fine Art was a paid position from 2008 until it was scrapped in 2013 as “professional standards and ethics were reviewed and changes were implemented”, according to the University.
Durham University came under fire at the time for its spending on art during the £50 million development programme which included the construction of the Palatine centre. Speaking to Palatinate in 2013 the University defended the decision by labelling themselves as a “custodian of many fine treasures”. Palatinate also found that the post of Keeper of Fine Art was not filled through an open competition application process. The Keeper of Fine Art incurred expenses totalling £81,958 between 2008/09 and 2012/13. The post holder also benefited from free or subsidised accommodation prior to January 2014.
In response to the findings, Henry Dyson Fine Art Ltd told Palatinate: “Henry Dyson Fine Art Ltd was an approved supplier to the University and was engaged under a consultancy contract agreed with the University Treasurer (the post now called Chief Financial Officer). “Henry Dyson Fine Art Ltd purchased works of art on behalf of the University according to a program agreed with the Vice-Chancellor. “Henry Dyson Fine Art Ltd acted as an agent of the University and not as a principal. All purchases were approved by the Treasurer and the Vice-Chancellor.” The University now claims that the Western art collection is used for “research, teaching and engagement”. The collection includes works by Sandra Blow, Victor Vaserely, Alexander Calder, Terry Frost, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. There are 85 works of University art in Hollingside House, a building inhabited by previous Vice-Chancellors and now used for business, hospitality and accommodation.
The current Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge lives in a building attached to Hollingside House. The freedom of information request found that over the past 10 years, the University’s spending on fine art has totalled £2,459,724. This high level of spending is partly due to the £591,200 spent in 2011/12 and £701,750 in 2012/13 with the Keeper of Fine Art’s own private business. The University stated that when possible they seek out funding to match University spending, although this totalled only £271,781 over the past decade. In response to these findings Pro Vice Chancellor Professor David Cowling said: “The post of Keeper of Fine Art was discontinued in 2013, when, following auditors’ advice, the Librarian and their professionally qualified staff – working to national standards – became responsible for our western art collection. “At this point, professional standards and ethics were reviewed and changes were implemented. “While we recognise that, in the past, our processes haven’t always been transparent, since 2015 all new acquisitions have been presented, in detail, to a specialist panel – which our Collections Committee oversees – to ensure the University is working within the Museum Association’s ethical guidelines.
“We are working towards national accreditation standards for all parts of our collections.” Steps have since been taken to make the process more transparent. An Acquisitions and Disposal Panel was established, in line with national best practice. Since 2015 all acquisitions and disposals have been presented to this panel, overseen by the Collections Committee. In 2016, Durham University was ranked the third highest English university spender on artwork, with expenditure.
“Professional standards and ethics were reviewed and changes were implemented”
Durham was only outspent by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Durham’s most expensive piece of artwork lies outside the Bill Bryson library. The ‘geosculpture’, a geographical map of the United Kingdom, cost the University £90,000. Since 2011, University accommodation fees have risen by almost £3000, which has sparked student protests and the #RippedOff campaign. In the same period, Durham University has spent just under £2.5 million on purchasing artwork.

What do students think?

Adam Davies, a fourth year Maths student said: “I would say only a small proportion of students appreciate the art, compared with the amount of our tuition fees that go towards it” Charlie Norton, a third-year English Literature student told Palatinate: “It’s difficult to appreciate fine art around the University when you’re too busy rushing to the Bill Bryson to try and get a seat. The order of priorities desperately needs to be questioned if over £2 million pounds is being spent on art instead of providing more library space for students trying to study. Personally, I came here to get a degree, not to look at ‘geosculptures.” Latika Rodway-Anand, a fourth-year German and History student said: “I’ve literally never seen any [art]”. “I enjoy the picture of all of the college principals that used to be in Calman, but also the fact they have all those Picassos and we never get to see them is stupid”, commented Sean Maplesden, a Modern Languages student.
“I’ve literally never seen any [art]”
“Spending so much on art is a huge kick in the teeth to students”, Ted Lavis-Coward, a third-year English Literature student told Palatinate: “Spending so much on art is a huge kick in the teeth to students waiting three months to access consistently underfunded mental health services and when working class students cannot afford to study here.” They added: “The University has failed to suitably specify how money will be invested to accommodate such a huge influx of students, with the mental health services sure to be under even more strain and rents in the city sure to continue to spiral out of control. “Durham University isn’t even attempting to uphold a representation of a fair institution that is invested in its students and staff.” Correction The original article was published with a photo of a sculpture by Fenwick Lawson. There was no intention to link the work of Fenwick Lawson with the discrepancies of Henry Dyson and the image has since been changed. Palatinate apologies for any offence caused. @julia_atherley @jackpetertaylor @leggatt_alex Photographs by William Mewes via Flickr