Collections Management in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

31 August 2006

Collections Management in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland (the Council) is the lead body for the development of the arts in Northern Ireland. To raise awareness and interest in the visual arts, the Council has maintained and developed a collection of some 1,200 works of art, valued at £2.7million. It also has responsibility for a Partnership Purchasing Scheme (PPS) where it assisted others to purchase works of art. This scheme is now closed. Today, John Dowdall CB, Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), produced a report which highlights shortcomings in the management of the Council’s collection and the Partnership Purchase Scheme. The report found:

  • a history of poor controls and record management which has resulted in the loss of a number of works from the Council’s collection and uncertainty about a number of works acquired through PPS;
  • approximately half of the collection is held in storage conditions which are less than ideal;
  • scope for improved co-ordination between the Council and the Department of Finance and Personnel who also maintain a collection of art work; and
  • that despite taking a decision in October 2000 to “gift” its collection to local museums and galleries, the Council has still to complete the transfer.

Management of the Council’s Collection

The report records a history of losses and poor record-keeping. Following the write-off of 69 missing works in 1990-91, the Council should have reviewed the soundness of its control systems. However, this issue was not fully addressed given the identification of additional works and further write-offs in 1999, and the identification of almost 300 additional works in the reconciliation of the collection in September 2005. In May 2006 the Council told the Audit Office that it had completed its reconciliation and had identified 52 works, current market value £28,000, which require follow up. This will include contacting all former and current borrowers, contacting other institutions with collections, e-mailing images and descriptions to auction houses, circulating details on the Arts Council website and where necessary, recourse to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The Audit Office welcomes the steps the Council has taken in recent times to introduce a new database for its collection; to value the collection; and to make its collection more accessible thereby increasing public access and awareness. It also welcomes the Council’s collaboration with the Ulster Museum to prevent duplication and to ensure that both collections can be united to present a balanced collection.

Partnership Purchase Scheme

The Audit Office review of the Scheme identified significant shortcomings in its management. Record management has been poor, inspection infrequent and valuation, as with the main collection, outdated and understated. The Audit Office found that 56 works acquired under the Partnership Purchase Scheme require “follow up”. In addition, the Council has neither records of transactions, nor evidence of departmental approval for write-off for a further 39 works. The Council has agreed to take action to reconcile this position, including issuing letters to partners who have reported losses, informing them that it will be seeking recovery of the Council’s share of works at current market value. The report notes that the Council is determined to take control of this aspect of its collection and has outlined a definitive path for its future devolution, management and care.

Storage of the Council’s Collection

Council works not on display (approximately 50 per cent) are held in storage which is currently provided free of charge by a private sector company. Council staff have no direct access to the storeroom due to security constraints. The Council acknowledges that it has always had problems in relation to the care and conservation of works both in storage and on loan. While there have been improvements the report records concerns, primarily over climatic conditions, although the Council considers that the climatic concerns are not serious ones.

Scope for Improved Co-ordination

The Council’s collection operates independently of the collection procured and managed by the Department of Finance and Personnel which is primarily used for display in government buildings. Between them the collections comprise some 2,600 works, with a value approaching £4m. The report recommends that both bodies examine the scope for co-ordinating their activities to ensure that the most effective use is made of the public assets under their stewardship. DFP told the Audit Office that it agrees that the most effective use should be made of these public assets and will take the opportunity to explore again ways that closer co-operation may be established.

Gifting of the Council’s Collection

The Council formally agreed to wind down its loan scheme in October 2000 and to gift its collection to local museums and galleries. However, this has been delayed due to a request from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in July 2003 for further details, including the identification, reconciliation and valuation of works, the production of a business case and the completion of an up-to-date collection database. Work is still continuing in each of these processes.