The decision by the trustees of the Courtauld Institute to make the staff of its photographic collections redundant is a panic measure by a floundering organisation.
All arts institutions that rely even in part on investment income are feeling the pinch, but it still came as a great shock when in August the Courtauld Institute of Art in
The significance of these resources – only a tiny fraction of which has been digitised – is well summarised on the Courtauld’s own website: the Witt, we are told, ‘is an essential resource for the serious study of art history’; the Conway is ‘an especially valuable instrument of research’; and the Photographic Survey is ‘an invaluable resource for scholars and students of art history’. How strange, therefore, that these facts did not sway the Courtauld’s board of trustees. In truth, the photographic libraries embody the sort of connoisseurial scholarship that is deeply out of fashion, in the Courtauld as elsewhere, which may have made them seem easy game.
In its press release announcing the redundancies – one of the most weaselly documents of its kind that I have ever read – the Courtauld announces that it is ‘pleased to confirm that the Witt and Conway Libraries will remain open to the public for five days a week’. Initially it proposed opening the libraries only one day a week but was forced to back down after internal protests. However, the fact that the collections have lost their entire dedicated staff and have ceased (for the time being at least) to make acquisitions means that they are effectively dead.
That the Courtauld should have made these decisions without public consultation, and with no apparent attempt to undertake fundraising or to find partnerships with institutions that might secure a viable future for these collections, is depressing. It may yet have to backtrack, for there is no evidence that it has sought by legal means to vary the terms of the trust set up by Sir Robert Witt at the time of the gift of his library to the University of London in 1944, which specified that it had to maintain a dedicated staff (and what has happened to the funds he bequeathed for that purpose?) If allowed to get away with such measures, how long will it be before the Courtauld’s trustees start to regard its world-famous art collection as yet another disposable asset?
The Courtauld Institute gives every sign of floundering in a way all too familiar in the arts in the