Vote: Should Suffolk protect Gainsborough and its artistic heritage?

Gainsborough’s House, which displays the largest collection of the artist’s work, has raised the alarm over its financial viability. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke says that we should treasure our past

It’s sad but no surprise that institutions like Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury are having concerns about their economic viability.

Money for the arts is in short supply and with council cash being squeezed because of cutbacks, it’s all too easy to just say OK, let’s just forget it.

But, if that is the case, what are we turning our backs on?

Is Suffolk that narrow-minded? Are we only interested in commercial projects? Are the critics of Gainsborough’s House really so shallow that they would be happy to sell off its world-class collection to the highest bidder?

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I hope not. The arts, in all its forms, provide a window onto us as a society. They provide a means for us to stop and think, to question how we view our world.

Many in the arts lead a hand-to-mouth existence. Last week a survey of Equity union members discovered that only 6% of actors earned over �30,000 last year.

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I think we need to stop and take stock of what we have in Gainsborough’s House. Here, we have a collection of art works of national importance.

Do we really want to be known as the county that turned its back on one of its most famous sons? Do we want to be the county that cheerfully said goodbye to an art collection simply because it was temporarily inconvenient to support it? Look at what we have here. It’s the largest collection of Gainsboroughs in the country outside London and what’s more its on display. It’s on the walls, not locked in a vault.

Also, the work is displayed in its natural home. It’s not in a sterile gallery but in an atmospheric, historic building that has an obvious link with the work on display. In effect the building is also an historic work of art and tells us much of our own culture and heritage. It’s a physical link to our past and if we lose interest in our past we then lose our sense of identity. For those who are interested, Gainsborough’s House is the only artist’s birthplace open to the public in Britain. It was established as a museum in 1961.

The building was originally two cottages that were joined together in about 1520. A brick facade was added in the 1720s by the artist’s father. Further additions were made in the 1790s to the back of the house to make it a more elegant residence. In the 1890s the property was purchased by a builder and parts of it were turned into a warehouse and part of the extensive garden was developed as a silk factory.

So we have not just Gainsborough’s history tied up in the building but an important part of the history of Sudbury and Suffolk.

The French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Spanish and even the Americans, the greatest capitalist culture of all, appreciate the role art plays in our lives, why is it so difficult for us to see beyond the price of things? We wring our hands at the cost but fail to see the value.

Of course, we can’t bury our heads in the sand. We have to acknowledge that times are tough and savings have to be made but we should be looking at improving income from visitor numbers, from attracting funding from elsewhere and doing things differently.Most importantly, trustees, councils, heritage lottery funders should all be prepared to stand-up and publically declare they are willing to safeguard our important artistic heritage.

If we lose it then we will all be the poorer. Education and community use plays a huge part in the life of any gallery, museum or arts centre. So too does Gainsborough’s House with its famous print workshop. Ipswich is raising funds to buy the Ipswich Art School gallery for community use because it has filled such an important role in the town’s cultural life.

Surely extra income can be raised at Gainsborough’s House by increasing community use and its educational provision. It has unique resources which be criminal if they were let slide.

Diane Perkins, director of Gainsborough’s House Society since 2004, has left because of concerns for the museum’s “viability”.

They say they have to reduce overhead costs but how can you plan for the future, how can you seek additional funding, how can you develop additional community and education use without someone to plan events and make those all-important funding applications?

You need someone to plan for the future, to keep the exhibitions fresh otherwise it is all too easy for everything to just stagnate.

The government places a lot of store on promoting arts philanthropy within the business community. But, as the world has discovered philanthropy doesn’t just happen it has to be encouraged, coaxed into being – it won’t happen if there is no figurehead with the time and the passion to sell the collection to the outside world. In recent years, the charity has seen its income drop from the �551,543 it reaped in 2006 to just �368,564 in 2010.

Funding comes from a range of sources including Suffolk County Council, Babergh District Council, Sudbury Town Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. It’s clear that things have to change but equally the collection has to be safeguarded.

Maybe there is a role for Ipswich Colchester Museums to play. The collection at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich is just as important. Perhaps Gainsborough’s House and Christchurch Mansion could go into partnership for mutual benefit. Collections and exhibitions can be shared and Suffolk will increase its reputation as a haven for the arts.

n Do you think the Gainsborough House collection should be saved? Vote in our web poll on

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