Wasting Monet: TaxPayers' Alliance reveals that only a third of council-owned art is on display

TaxPayers' Alliance uncovers the collection's total worth of £1.9 billion

Embargoed: 00:01 Tuesday 03 December 2019

As the art world comes together in Margate this evening for the Turner Prize awards, research shows that bumper collections aren't limited to world famous galleries. Local councils have millions of their own artworks, though many are hidden from public view.

New research for the TaxPayers' Alliance has revealed that councils throughout the UK are hoarding nearly £1.9 billion of town hall masterpieces. Despite many local authorities pleading poverty, council curators are holding onto billions of pounds worth of art while only displaying less than a third of what they own.

During the recent years of spending cuts a number of councils have still purchased artworks, with Bassetlaw district council having purchased the most, splurging on 201 pieces of art between 2016-17 and 2018-19. 

Manchester city council topped the bill with their bumper collection valued at £369 million though less than one in ten of their pieces are on display. Wiltshire county council stands out among the 8 councils which display none of their collection publicly, with 2,099 hidden artworks owned and not displayed for the taxpayers who own them. 

Notable items

Gedling borough council has an oil painting commemorating figure skaters Torvill and Deane (LINK) and a steel sculpture of a flaming tree valued at nearly £20,000.


Chesterfield borough council possess a marble block entitled rose-wall, designed by Dame Barbara Hepworth, which was valued at over £500,000 when purchased over a decade ago (image license LINK).

North Somerset council’s Weston Museum is home to a £5,000 Punch and Judy set (LINK).

Lincoln city council owns over £1 million of heirlooms, including swords used by both Richard II and Henry VII. 

Click here to read the research paper and see full data for your area

Key findings

  • Local authorities across the UK own at least 1.9 million pieces of art worth a total of nearly £1.9 billion
  • The average value of collections for each council is around £7 million
  • On average only 30.2 per cent of the art is on public display.
  • The council with the largest collection of artwork was Middlesbrough council with more than 250,000 items. However this authority has decided to withhold the value of their collection and number of pieces on display.
  • The highest value art collection was held by Manchester city council being valued at around £369 million. Only 7.6 per cent of its collection is on display.
  • Eight local authorities did not display any of the artworks they owned, with Wiltshire owning 2,099 yet not displaying any.

Click here to read the research paper and see full data for your area

Darwin Friend, researcher at the TaxPayers' Alliance, said:

"With council tax hammering hard-working families, town hall art aficionados should question whether hidden collections of costly artworks are the best use of taxpayers' money.

"Of course there are instances where councils have been donated art or forbidden from selling, but surely town hall leaders ought to be making the most of what they have and either allowing the taxpayers that own the art access to it, or selling it off where possible to boost their coffers. 

""Some councils are able to maximise value for money by maintaining collections which are small enough to be displayed for the enjoyment of the public at all times. Other local authorities hoarding their own mystery masterpieces should be following in their footsteps."

TPA spokesmen are available for live and pre-recorded broadcast interviews via 07795 084 113 (no texts)

Media contact:

Sam Packer
Media Campaign Manager, TaxPayers' Alliance
[email protected]
24-hour media hotline: 07795 084 113 (no texts)

  1. Founded in 2004 by Matthew Elliott and Andrew Allum, and now with 80,000 supporters, the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) fights to reform taxes, reduce spending and protect taxpayers. Find out more about the TaxPayers' Alliance at www.taxpayersalliance.com.
  2. TaxPayers' Alliance's advisory council.
  3. The TaxPayers’ Alliance published a report in February 2019 revealing the cost of local council spending on award ceremonies.
  4. In landmark polling released in November 2019, the TaxPayers’ Alliance found that more than three quarters of those polled supported a cap on council tax rises.
This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience.  More info. Okay