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£14m worth of artworks owned by Northern Ireland councils hidden from public

The Proclamation of Edward VII, Belfast Town Hall, 1901: Taylor, Ernest E & Mackenzie, William Gibbs
The Proclamation of Edward VII, Belfast Town Hall, 1901: Taylor, Ernest E & Mackenzie, William Gibbs
Field Marshal Frederick Roberts by Charles Wellington
Attack by the Ulster Division 1st July 1916 by James Beadle
Queen Victoria portrait by Sir Thomas Alfred Jones
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

Councils in Northern Ireland own valuable artworks worth more than £14m - yet many items are held in storage, it has emerged.

They are part of a £1.9bn-valued UK-wide art collection acquired by local authorities.

A freedom of information request showed that 10 of Northern Ireland's 11 councils have 6,326 pieces of art worth £14,330,217.

The figures emerge in a new report by the TaxPayers' Alliance, a right-wing public spending watchdog.

But many are hidden from public view as only 1,617 of these pieces are on display, with most of the rest sitting in storage.

Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon topped the list with its lofty collection of 1,034 artworks valued at £6.7m.

However, the council declined to reveal how many of these are actually on public view in museums and galleries.

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The local authority with the largest collection of artwork was Northern Ireland's biggest, Belfast City, with 2,053 items. Yet just 56% of these are available to view.

However, Belfast City Council withheld the value of its collection, saying "only a few items are specifically valued".

The collection includes the John Luke mural depicting the declaration of Belfast's Royal Charter from King James I, which is displayed in Belfast City Hall's Whispering Gallery.

Other artworks of civic importance on public view include portraits of King Edward VII and Queen Victoria.

Derry City and Strabane is sitting on a collection worth £2.5m but only 16% of the 981 items are displayed.

Causeway Coast and Glens has £2m worth of artwork but did not disclose if any of the 1,224 items it owns can be seen by ratepayers.

Ards and North Down said its 285 pieces of art are valued at £1.4m but only 15% are on show in locations including North Down Museum, Bangor Castle, Ards Arts Centre and the offices and corridors of the two main council facilities at Bangor Castle and Church Street, Newtownards. An oil painting by Francesco Solimena, called The Departure of Rebecca, is the most expensive item in the collection owned by Ards and North Down.

Its oldest item is an 18th century Rubens painting, entitled Christ and the Tax Gatherers.

Fermanagh and Omagh District Council's collection of 210 items is worth £1.2m, of which 37% are on display. Meanwhile, Mid and East Antrim owns 244 watercolour and oil paintings, as well as sculpture pieces and photographs, 148 of which have been valued at an estimated £262,577.

The council didn't reveal how many pieces of art in its ownership are on public display. The most valuable piece is a £20,000 oil painting of Carrickfergus Harbour dated 1964 by Kenneth Webb.

A number of collections by artists including Jack Donaldson and portraits of the Davys Wilson family, dated circa 1650 to 1900, is also owned by Mid and East Antrim. Lisburn and Castlereagh has 41% of its artwork on display in a collection valued at £11,622.

Antrim and Newtownabbey said all 100 works that it owns, and worth £119,190, can be seen by the public, as can the 10 pieces owned by Mid Ulster District Council and valued at £27,857.

No figures were provided by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council.

During the recent years of spending reductions, seven councils have still purchased artworks, with Belfast City having bought the most, splurging on 43 pieces of art in the past three years, just one ahead of Lisburn and Castlereagh.

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland said that while all the publicly owned collections are not visible every day, councils do lend to exhibitions and make the work available if people want to see it.

Sam Packer, campaign manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "Just like councils in England, councils in Northern Ireland are hoarding artworks away from the public who own them.

"Art which no one is enjoying is wasted and should either be pulling in punters on display, or sold to raise the revenues councils are forever demanding.

"Town hall bosses need to spend less time pleading poverty and instead focus on simple sources of savings like selling off their excess art."

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