University drastically cuts art spending

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A Freedom of Information request submitted by Palatinate indicates that Durham University has significantly reduced its spending on artworks in the 2019/20 year, spending a total of £36,559.33 on 32 new works.

The new pieces include works by female, international, refugee, local and LGBTQ+ artists. According to the University, they represent “the University Library and Collections department’s commitment to actively challenging and expanding its collecting practices.”

The average price of each new acquisition was just under £1,150, with the most expensive piece – ‘Conversation II’, a painted steel sculpture by Nancy Frankel – costing $15,000, and the cheapest – a digital collage called ‘Lawrence’ by Zaina El Said – costing just $110.

These pieces will join Durham’s vast 6,000-piece collection, which includes works by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Henry Moore, the Guerilla Girls, Victor Pasmore, and Eric Gill.

It is understood that of all UK universities, Durham ranks third on its spending on art, behind only Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

The new pieces include works by female, international, refugee, local and LGBTQ+ artists

Investing in art has tended to be justified by the University in order to support teaching. According to the Freedom of Information request, the new acquisitions will “be used to support teaching and research, particularly within BA Visual Arts & Film, MA Visual Culture and MA Museum & Artefact Studies, widening participation, widening student experience and public engagement.”

While many works are on display in buildings such as the Palatine Centre, the majority of Durham’s art collection is archived in the College behind Durham Cathedral.

The new acquisitions include several from the same artists; three by Mohammad Awwad, Adnan Sammam, Farbod Mehr, Rabee Baghshani and Hani Amra, and four by Mouad Aboulhana.

Durham University’s art collection has attracted controversy in the past. Last year, Palatinate revealed the £2 million unaudited art bill between 2008-2015. It was found that £1.5 million worth of artwork was purchased through Henry Dyson Fine Art Ltd – the private business of the university’s Keeper of Fine Art (a position that has since been removed) – and therefore not properly scrutinised.

In response to these findings, Henry Dyson Ltd told Palatinate: “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.”

Since 2015, Durham University has taken steps to make their process of acquiring art more transparent. An Acquisitions and Disposal Panel was established who have overseen all acquisitions since then.

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