Author: Mark Brown
An art gallery and museum founded a century ago to help Jewish immigrants gain access to the arts is to dispose of half of its collection as part of a reinvention.
The Ben Uri Gallery plans to sell or transfer about 700 works. About 25 of the most valuable, including paintings by David Bomberg and Mark Gertler, will be auctioned at Sotheby’s this year. Other works will be given free to institutions who can “generate meaningful public benefit” from them.
The aim, says the gallery, is to become the UK’s first museum and research body dedicated to the work of immigrant artists, regardless of religion.
David Glasser, the gallery’s executive chair, said the disposal programme would be spread over a number of years “because we have a great many people to talk to”.
He added: “We’ve got artists or artist’s families or the heirs of those who gifted the works or those who did give us the work. This has got to be done intelligently, sensitively, carefully.”
The Ben Uri Art Society was founded in Whitechapel, east London, in 1915 to help Jewish immigrants get a foothold. It had various homes around the capital before closing its gallery in Dean Street, Soho, in 1996. After six years without a gallery, it opened a new space in St John’s Wood, north-west London, in 2002.
The aim was to find better gallery space in central London but that has proved impossible. This led to a reappraisal of what the gallery’s purpose should be.
Glasser said Ben Uri’s problem was that it was not distinctive enough. “We are in London, not in Llandudno. We are one of 300 museums in London? X-thousand galleries in London? And we are small, a tiny little institution that is built as much on energy and passion as it is on pounds, shillings and pence. If we cannot generate distinctive public benefit, what actually is the point?”
There was no real demand today for “a Jewish institution for a Jewish public about Jewish artists”. But there was a pressing need for an organisation exploring and championing immigrant artists, Glasser said.
The programme of collection disposal, or deaccessioning, may set off alarm bells in some quarters. However deaccessioning is no longer frowned upon as it once was in the UK museum sector. A report on museum collecting by David Cannadine published this year noted a rising number of organisations disposing of objects, most of them never publicly seen.
Glasser said the artworks being disposed of by the Ben Uri gallery were ones that fitted into carefully drawn up and transparent criteria.
The highest-profile works to be sold by Sotheby’s includes At the Window by Bomberg, 1919. The painting, which captures the artist’s postwar disillusionment, has an estimated value of £500,000 to £800,000.
Another Bomberg work is the vibrant The Broken Aqueduct, Wadi Kelt near Jericho 1926, painted during the four years that the artist, an East End Jew, spent in Palestine. It has an estimated value of £120,000 to £180,000.
Other works include Gertler’s Nude , painted in 1938, a year before his death; and a watercolour by the pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon, Night Looking Upon Sleep, Her Beloved Child (II), 1895.
Sales are expected to raise £1.3m to £2m. The funds will go towards further acquisitions as well as the creation of an online dictionary of the immigrant contribution to art as well as an arts and dementia institute.
Glasser said Ben Uri’s “Jewish heritage is fundamental to our being” but it also had to remain relevant. The difficult decisions being taken were needed to create an organisation that “reflects our times, reflects our heritage and allows us to move forward in a way that we are creating a distinctive public benefit”, he said.