From Henry Moore to Andy Goldsworthy, Rembrandt to Gilbert and George, Paul Hill finds universities home to a remarkable collection of art. But as budgets shrink, he wonders how long before the auctions begin
Some said it was an act of cultural vandalism, a tragedy for the country and the betrayal of a long-dead Victorian's legacy. Others saw it as a sad but necessary step to stop financial rot. Questions were asked in the House, letters were exchanged in The Times , ministers expressed regret but declined to intervene.
Twelve years have passed since Royal Holloway, University of London, dipped into the art collection bequeathed it by 19th-century industrialist Thomas Holloway to sell paintings by Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. The old masters brought in more than £20 million, which enabled the university to pay for the upkeep of the Grade I-listed Founder's Hall, Holloway's other legacy for future generations. But predictions that this would prompt vice-chancellors elsewhere to flog the university silver have proved unfounded.
The sale at Royal Holloway was an aberration, one of a few exceptions to an unspoken rule among Britain's curators never to dispose of major work, according to Richard Verdi, director of Birmingham University's Barber Institute of Fine Arts. "We just don't do it," he says. "Royal Holloway was exceptional because they had very valuable works, they were in great financial need and they probably saw having a first-class art collection as beyond their remit."
But the climate is changing. Unspoken rules mean little if budgets are squeezed, particularly for the 40-odd campus collections that rely on state funding rather than income from a private endowment, such as the Barber. In 2009, the Higher Education Funding Council for England will alter the way university museums and galleries receive money. Instead of grants being channelled through the Arts and Humanities Research Council, there are fears among curators that Hefce will lump funding into institutional core grants. Vice-chancellors would then hold the purse strings. "A lot of vice-chancellors are not sure why their university has a museum at all, seeing them as a liability rather than an asset," says Nichola Johnson, director of the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich and chairwoman of the University Museums Group.
Of course, not all universities have old masters on their walls. But whether by bequest or judicious acquisition, they do hold substantial assets in the form of art: they account for one third of the collections designated by the Government as being of national or international importance.
Looking at insurance values alone, Brighton's art is worth in the region of £390,000, Kingston's up to £750,000, Exeter's £2 million and Stirling's more than £2 million. Even the Open University has a collection valued at about £381,000 at its Milton Keynes headquarters.
Higher education boasts an embarrassment of riches when it comes to some artists: the abstract sculpture of Barbara Hepworth can be found on eight campuses and college grounds from Lancaster to Cardiff.
But the funding change raises a deeper question than who controls the cash, one that was at the heart of the Royal Holloway episode: why should a university hold art in the first place? To beautify a campus? To be cultural outposts in the regions? To create opportunities for research?
University College London has some 10,000 works, including Turner, Constable and a recently gifted set of etchings by Whistler, while the Slade School of Fine Art has pieces by Augustus John, Dora Carrington and Paula Rego.
The Courtauld Institute's paintings, drawings and prints include work by Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Cézanne and Turner.
The Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, the Ashmolean in Oxford, the Whitworth in Manchester, the Hunterian in Glasgow, the Sainsbury Centre and the Barber can also claim a place in Britain's cultural life independent of their respective universities. But elsewhere the purpose is less clear.
David Sweeney, vice-principal of Royal Holloway, which retains a substantial collection, including Millais' Princes in the Tower and works by Landseer, says: "The gallery isn't an art gallery as such - it's a working room used by staff, students and the public for such varied things as registration, open days, exams and receptions. We've moved a long way from the early 1990s and we are looking at how we can use a collection we value highly to further what we are about."
Nevertheless, as the mission of higher education institutions has evolved to match political agendas, so too have the missions of the university museums. For many, the emphasis is now on outreach and education; bringing in the public and schoolchildren, often giving pupils their first experience of a campus. But even in this work there are tensions. Is the best way to present paintings to schoolchildren - such as lowering the height at which they hang on a wall - appropriate for artwork that is also used for academic research?
"It's just fad-ism," says one curator, who makes no concessions to younger visitors in the way the collection is presented.
The scope of university art collections, their purpose and how they are displayed differ markedly around the country. Some are the relics of bequests and donations, collections that perhaps say as much about how an individual collector's taste evolved over time as what stands as "good" art.
Some legacies verge on being vanity projects. Acts of generosity can also be gilded handcuffs - obliging universities to conserve the art they are given - while others have strings attached. The Barber endowment of 1932, for example, donated money rather than art. The founding instruction was to create by acquisition a collection "of a standard required by the National Gallery"; giving the institute's directors scope to buy art from Van Dyck to Van Gogh. But in her generosity, Dame Martha Constance Hattie Barber - the wife of a Birmingham property developer and solicitor - ruled that the institute should not accept gifts from anyone else or acquire art created after 1899. This latter stipulation was "reinterpreted" by trustees in the 1960s to allow the then director to buy 20th-century art - so long as it was at least 30 years old.
Working within these strictures, Verdi describes his approach as a mixture of looking for pieces that will complement or say something new about the existing collection and looking for artists or artistic styles that are poorly represented in Britain. He has a "discretionary allowance" from his trustees of £30,000 a year to buy art, though his most recent purchase - a landscape by Norwegian Romantic painter J. C. Dahl - was bought with a £297,000 lottery grant.
Students have also played a role in Barber acquisitions. "I took some students abroad, to the Low Countries, a few years ago and came back in time for the Royal Academy print fair," Verdi says. "I said, 'we are going to see if we can find something for the collection' - and they did, a Matisse lithograph of 1913."
By contrast, Lady Sainsbury, who began collecting art in the 1930s with her now late husband, is still exercising her taste and acquiring pieces for the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, most recently Japanese art.
"The Sainsbury collection as it came in was a particular kind of collection and a personal one," Ms Johnson says. "But their [the Sainsburys'] acquisition has been affected by conversations and interests that have stemmed from academic work that has been going on around the collection."
Nevertheless, curators who cannot rely on benefactors with deep pockets are also adding to their collections - often with art that has direct relevance to place. Southampton has purchased photographs of Wittgenstein's house by Guy Morton for display in the philosophy department, while Tai-Shan Schierenberg was commissioned by Queen's University, Belfast, to paint a portrait of the poet Seamus Heaney, an alumnus and lecturer there in the mid-1960s.
But a compelling answer to the Royal Holloway question can be found at Hertfordshire University, which has been building its collection over the past five years. This month saw the installation on the Hatfield campus of Mountain , a monumental sculpture by Diane Maclean that stood previously outside the Natural History Museum in London. The work by Maclean joins pieces by Hepworth and Andy Goldsworthy in the university grounds. Chris McIntyre, dean of faculty for the creative arts, says: "You build a collection because it reflects what you aim to do in terms of your academic disciplines, your research, the communities you serve and the cultural environment you want to create."
Art is all a matter of signs and symbols. Why not put a collection to use as icons of imagination that tell staff, students and all who visit a campus or college that this is a place of creative thought and craft? Art need not simply furnish a room.
TEN OF THE BEST
University of Wales, Bangor , has 230 oil paintings and 180 watercolours, ranging from 17th-century to contemporary artists as well as two murals, one painted in 1999 by Catrin Webster called the Hall of Illusions and another from the 1970s by Edward Povey, which depicts the progress of man from birth to old age.
Southampton University's art collection in the Basil Spence buildings on the Highfield campus includes two Hepworth sculptures and a mural painted in the senate room by William Rothstein, an official artist of the First World War. The most recent acquisition was of two photographs by Guy Morton of Wittgenstein's house in Norway.
Exeter University's art collection was established with bequests and donations in 1959, with further works purchased, including Patrick Heron's Violet with Venetian, Scarlet and Emerald . There are 19 sculptures in the university grounds, including a piece by Henry Moore on permanent loan.
Queen's University, Belfast , has more than a thousand pieces in its art collection and buys only pieces by living artists. Queen's commissions two portraits a year, the most recent by Tai-Shan Schierenberg of the poet Seamus Heaney.
Kingston University was appointed custodian of the Dora Gordine House in 1993 after the artist failed to persuade the Victoria and Albert Museum to undertake care of her collection. Gordine collected 19th-century Russian art, including icons, lacquer work and ceramics. Also included are Gordine's bronze sculptures, paintings and drawings.
Hertfordshire University's collection has been growing over the past five years, including the acquisition of a slate cone by Andy Goldsworthy and a monumental sculpture called Mountain , by Diane Maclean. The university also acquires piecesfrom students' degree shows.
Whitworth Collection, Manchester , is the legacy of Victorian engineer Sir Joseph Whitworth, who left money in his will to create a gallery. It opened in 1889 and became part of Manchester University in 1958. The emphasis is on fine art as benefactors gifted British watercolours and European prints. The collection ranges from William Blake's Europe , the frontispiece to The Ancient of Days, to Peter Blake's 1964 print The Beach Boys .
Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich , was created after Sir Robert and Lady Lisa Sainsbury donated their collection to the University of East Anglia in 1973. The couple's first major purchase came in the early 1930s, Sir Jacob Epstein's Baby Asleep. The collection now includes work by Moore, Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon.
Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow , is Scotland's oldest public museum. It originated with an 18th-century Royal surgeon, William Hunter, who left a substantial collection of 17th-century Dutch and Italian paintings and enough money to establish a museum to the university in 1783. Since then, works have been added from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including French impressionists and Scottish colourists. It now houses the largest collection of the works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, including his painting Daily Record Building, Glasgow: Perspective from the South-East.
The Barber Institute, Birmingham , was established in 1932 through an endowment by Dame Martha Constance Hattie Barber. Since then, the institute's four directors have acquired European art spanning the 13th to early 20th century, from Bellini and Botticelli to Monet and Magritte. One of the most recent acquisitions was of a 19th-century landscape by Norwegian artist J. C. Dahl, called Mother and Child by the Sea .