Wilful neglect of Graves Gallery

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From: Jennifer Holland

Angerford Road, Sheffield S8

I was interested to read, in Ian Soutar’s article on the extra hours boost for city museums (Sheffield Telegraph, June 2), that the Graves Art Gallery accounted for only 5% of Museums Sheffield footfall.

I’m not surprised at the low percentage. The Graves has long been one of Sheffield’s hidden gems, but never more so than since the Trust which is now called Museums Sheffield took over its running.

I understand it was the professionals within the Trust - not the council politicians - who wanted to close the Graves earlier this year, until a public outcry woke them up to its importance.

The professionals will no doubt correct me if I’m wrong about that, but I wish they would do something positive about the Graves rather than continue their current policy of what seems like wilful neglect.

Yes, we have the Millennium Galleries now, but they don’t have the same endearing intimacy and familiarity of the Graves, and let’s remember that we don’t have the Mappin Art Gallery or a separate Ruskin Gallery.

What characterises the Graves at present is static exhibitions, closed galleries, a recurring inability to open during advertised times, and lack of publicity and promotion - not only of the galleries but of the excellent and much-loved coffee bar set up under Frank Constantine’s directorship in the 1970s.

How often have these public assets figured in the Favourite Things page in the Sheffield Telegraph’s Guide?

The coffee bar walls were once used for changing exhibitions, like the photographs of the A1 and the seaside display based on Skegness.

When Julia Spalding was Director of Arts the galleries featured new exhibitions almost every month, and they were exciting exhibitions - like David Kemp’s sculpture, Gerald Scarfe’s cartoons and Nigel Henderson’s collages.

And anyway what is this talk of ‘footfall’?

If ten hoodlums walk into the Graves with the sole intention of harassing staff or vandalising pictures, that’s ten bodies and good footfall, whereas if one aesthete comes in and spends the best part of a day appreciating the works of art on display, that is still just one body and therefore less footfall.

How do you measure the quality of experience? Are feedback forms with tick-boxes adequate to the task? Yet such are the current funding regimes that these asinine footfall statistics have to be concocted to attract grants.

A major problem is that since the Trust took over in 1998 there has not been a Director (or Chief Executive, as they seem to prefer to be called these days) with any significant interest in, or knowledge of, the visual arts.

Nick Dodd, like his predecessor, Gordon Rintoul, is more concerned with running a business and attracting grants than in promoting art and artists.

The latter job is left to the professionals, but since one of Gordon Rintoul’s achievements was an almost 100% turnover of staff a lot of expertise and knowledge has been squandered.

Recently one of the present professionals had never heard of the Sheffield artist, Harry Allen, even though Allen’s painting of ‘Derbyshire Walls’ was on display at the time in the Graves!

The front-line staff, in the galleries and the coffee bar, continue to do a first-class job despite low pay, poor conditions of work, job insecurity and, one suspects, a permanent state of being treated by the professionals as insignificant.

All this will of course be denied by the management team, and there will be excuses about problems with the building in which the Graves is housed, and the straitened financial circumstances that we are all experiencing.

Before the Director (CE) or one of his professionals leaps to the defensive and starts rattling off statistics and giving explanations in the usual style of ‘management speak’, can I implore him or them to value a vital part of Sheffield’s heritage and not treat it to a slow death by neglect?