Wasting Monet: under thirty per cent of council-owned art is on public display

Embargoed: 00:01, Monday 27th May 2024

Cash strapped councils have built up a collection of almost two million pieces of art worth billions of pounds yet largely hidden from view by the public, it has been revealed today. The research, conducted by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, has found that town halls now own almost £1.5 billion of municipal masterpiecesDespite being in nearly £100 billion of debt, council curators have in many cases added to the collections of local authorities, with the average council artwork collection worth more than £8.7 million and numbering 6,265 pieces.

On average, just 28 per cent of the art collection of town halls is on public display, which is a fall from 30.2 per cent since the last time this study was conducted in 2019. Twelve councils display none of their collection publicly. Cambridgeshire council, whose collection numbers 68,556, only has 17 on display. In total UK councils own 1,854,518 pieces of artwork.

This comes after urgent warnings about the state of town hall finances. Six councils have issued Section 114 notices, effective declarations of bankruptcy in the last three financial years, while half have reported to surveys that they may be forced to issue such a notice in the next five years. The average council tax rise for 2024-25 was over 5 per cent, with average band D bills now above £2,000. However, many of these local authorities have remained avid art collectors, with Birmingham council purchasing 61 art pieces in 2020-23. Nottingham council’s collection was the seventh highest by valuation at £54,178,860.  

The council with the most extensive collection was County Durham, with 500,000 pieces of art, although it was not able to provide a valuation. his would mean its collection is the same size of the Louvre in Paris, and is many times larger than the National Gallery, London. The highest value collection was Manchester city council’s, at £383 million, although only 3.3 per cent of it was displayed. Wakefield council purchased the most artwork over the period, adding 213 pieces

Thirty councils, including Dorset and Slough, confirmed they currently own no works of art.



One artwork from Cornwall Council’s 222-piece artwork collection. Cornwall Council’s artwork collection is valued at £4,398,000. Only 27 per cent of this collection is on public display.



Vale of White Horse council has an art collection valued at £370,000. They have 64 artworks, 34 per cent of which are on public display. This particular sculpture cost taxpayers £9,000.

© the copyright holder. Image credit: Jane Roblin / Art UK


Durham council’s art collection of 500,000 pieces of artwork compared to art galleries around the world: 


Art Gallery 

Total number of artworks in collection

The Louvre 


The National Gallery 


The Art Institute of Chicago


The Vatican Museums 


Tate Galleries





Key findings:

  • Local authorities in the UK own at least 1,854,518 pieces of art. The average council collection has 6,265 pieces of artwork in it.

  • This artwork is worth almost £1.5 billion. The average value of a council’s artwork collection is more than £8.7 million. 

  • On average, only 28 per cent of the art owned by local authorities is currently on public display. 

  • Between 2020-21 and 2022-23, Wakefield council acquired the most artwork, with 213 pieces of art added over the period. Only 3.1 per cent of their artwork is currently on display.

  • The council with the largest collection of artwork was County Durham with 500,000 items. However, this authority was unable to provide the value of their collection.

  • The highest value art collection was held by Manchester city council, being valued for insurance purposes at £383 million. Only 3.3 per cent of its collection is on display.

  • 12 local authorities did not display any of the artworks they owned. These included: Chesterfield; Folkestone and Hythe; Hinckley and Bosworth; Huntingdonshire; North Northamptonshire; Rochdale; Rochford; South Ribble; Stafford; Tendring; Three Rivers; and Wrexham.


Jonathan Eida, researcher of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said:

"These findings won’t paint a pretty picture for hard-pressed taxpayers who have been hammered year after year by record-busting council tax hikes.

“Town hall bosses across the UK claim to be on a path to bankruptcy, yet far too many are prioritising art collections over bin collections.

“Councils should ensure that their art holdings are on public display, or consider selling them to replenish depleted coffers.”


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


Elliot Keck
Head of Campaigns, TaxPayers' Alliance
[email protected]
24-hour media hotline: 07795 084 113 (no texts)


Notes to editors:

  1. Founded in 2004 by Matthew Elliott and Andrew Allum, the TaxPayers' Alliance (TPA) campaigns to reform taxes and public services, cut waste and speak up for British taxpayers. Find out more at www.taxpayersalliance.com.

  2. TaxPayers' Alliance's advisory council.

  3. The TPA at 20 is a series of releases based on previous research produced by the TaxPayers’ Alliance during its 20 year history.

  4. The 2019 edition of Wasting Monet can be found here.
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