The Courtauld in Crisis

Apollo 16 September 2009
By Michael Hall

The decision by the trustees of the Courtauld Institute to make the staff of its photographic collections redundant is a panic measure by a floundering organisation.

All arts institutions that rely even in part on investment income are feeling the pinch, but it still came as a great shock when in August the Courtauld Institute of Art in London announced that to save money it was making five posts redundant: the staff of the Witt and Conway Libraries and the Photographic Survey. These three collections are photographs of paintings (the Witt, with some two million images), architecture, sculpture and the decorative arts (the Conway, with over a million images) and works of art in private British and Irish collections (the Photographic Survey, with images drawn from over 500 collections).

The significance of these resources – only a tiny fraction of which has been digitised – is well summarised on the Courtauld’s own website: the Witt, we are told, ‘is an essential resource for the serious study of art history’; the Conway is ‘an especially valuable instrument of research’; and the Photographic Survey is ‘an invaluable resource for scholars and students of art history’. How strange, therefore, that these facts did not sway the Courtauld’s board of trustees. In truth, the photographic libraries embody the sort of connoisseurial scholarship that is deeply out of fashion, in the Courtauld as elsewhere, which may have made them seem easy game.

In its press release announcing the redundancies – one of the most weaselly documents of its kind that I have ever read – the Courtauld announces that it is ‘pleased to confirm that the Witt and Conway Libraries will remain open to the public for five days a week’. Initially it proposed opening the libraries only one day a week but was forced to back down after internal protests. However, the fact that the collections have lost their entire dedicated staff and have ceased (for the time being at least) to make acquisitions means that they are effectively dead.

That the Courtauld should have made these decisions without public consultation, and with no apparent attempt to undertake fundraising or to find partnerships with institutions that might secure a viable future for these collections, is depressing. It may yet have to backtrack, for there is no evidence that it has sought by legal means to vary the terms of the trust set up by Sir Robert Witt at the time of the gift of his library to the University of London in 1944, which specified that it had to maintain a dedicated staff (and what has happened to the funds he bequeathed for that purpose?) If allowed to get away with such measures, how long will it be before the Courtauld’s trustees start to regard its world-famous art collection as yet another disposable asset?

The Courtauld Institute gives every sign of floundering in a way all too familiar in the arts in the USA as well as the UK. It is yet another organisation with an amiable but overwhelmed director and an ex-banker chairman of trustees with no experience of arts administration and too much time on his hands. They are not a team to inspire confidence that they can cope with the many challenges that the Courtauld faces. Despite cutting the photographic collections, the Courtauld will still struggle to secure its future as a financially independent entity. The massive forfeiture of public goodwill brought about by their short-sighted and high-handed treatment of the photographic collections suggests that the trustees are engaged in crisis management, and are sadly out of their depth in the task with which they are charged.
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