Here in Lincolnshire some of us are involved in a campaign to save our beautiful purpose-built Usher Art Gallery, bequeathed to the city of Lincoln in the 1920s by local businessman James Ward Usher, who made a fortune by selling jewellery based on the Lincoln imp – a grotesque stone-carving in Lincoln Cathedral, now better known as the mascot of Lincoln City Football Club.
On 13th April 2019 we marched up Steep Hill to the cathedral with a samba band to protest. Our art march was a vibrant event. For more details, have a look at the Save Lincolnshire's Usher Gallery campaign website.
Lincolnshire County Council is in the process of carrying out a heritage review, with the intention of making its cultural sites self-supporting financially. In practice, this entails withdrawing funding from a variety of venues. One of the proposals is to close the Usher Gallery, and to use the building as a wedding venue and coroner's court instead. A few weeks into the campaign, Lincoln City Council (which leases the Usher Gallery to Lincolnshire County Council) stated that Lincolnshire County Council must not change the purpose of the building. Lincolnshire County Council, in turn, stated that it had no objection to Lincoln City Council's running the gallery with another organisation. However, the fact is that the county council will not provide the funds to run the gallery.
We are in a catch-22 situation. 'Why should all of this bother us?' I hear you ask. Well, here's why: this sort of thing is happening all over the country. A trawl though related articles will open your eyes to county councils disposing of their assets for low prices, and cutting their cultural budgets in other parts of the UK – in Leicester, Birmingham and Scotland to name a few. This should concern us all – once these treasures are gone, our cultural heritage is irrevocably destroyed. And let's not doubt the true worth of great works of art – the super-rich are prepared to pay eye-watering sums for them, after all.
The Usher is a repository of what is best in our culture, and a work of art in its own right. As such we can reasonably expect our politicians – our elected representatives – to care for it and invest in it. Not everything that is worthwhile is profitable – public services, which enrich us and mark us out as a civilised people, require investment. The 'return' may not be easy to quantify, but is nonetheless of great value. We need to care for people's spirits as well as for their physical needs. Appreciating and engaging in the arts have well-known benefits for mental health. Who has not been lifted by a special day out to a place of cultural significance?
The County Council would save £100,000 per annum upfront if it ceased to run the Usher Gallery in Lincoln, but the county would be very much the poorer if we lost it. It's not good economics, either, for money invested in culture attracts tourist revenue. Let's think about what really matters and invest today in the sort of society we would like to live in tomorrow.
If you have the time, Lincoln is well worth a visit. We have one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe, a historic Norman castle with a copy of Magna Carta, many Roman remains and an array of medieval buildings on Steep Hill – and, of course, a fine art gallery and museum.
Jane Riley, organiser of the change.org petition to 'Keep art freely accessible in the Usher Gallery, Lincoln'