The Save Swindon Museum and Art Gallery petition signatories were submitted to Swindon Borough Council ahead of their full council meeting to be held on 23 September at 7pm, so that the matter could be discussed by councillors. As the person submitting the petition, I was allowed 5 minutes to speak about it, explain the basis of the requests, and why it was important, and be clear about the outcome we were asking for. I read the speech out so I didn't forget any points, unfortunately I had to stand on the balcony, not the best place to attract attention, with no possibility of making eye contact. I did start the speech by asking if people could hear me. I've put a copy of the speech below:
'Mr Mayor and assembled Councillors
The petition you have received today is a reflection of the strong feelings aroused by this Council's proposal to sell Apsley House and consign the town's museum and art collections to limbo for the next ten years, or however long it takes to build the new Art Pavilion as part of Swindon's grand vision of a new 'Cultural Quarter'.
Why sell Apsley House before a suitable replacement has been built?
The petition was started because Swindon Museum and Art Gallery currently housed at Apsley House in Old Town is under threat of permanent closure, its contents being put into storage, and the building sold as ‘surplus to requirements’. The museum has been housed there for the last 90 years, and the art collection for the last 60 years. Apsley House is a much loved facility despite its shortcomings, a lovely place to visit, and could be improved with some creative thinking. Please reconsider before passing it into private ownership; it is to use a hackneyed term, a jewel in Swindon’s crown.
Apsley House is a public building, it is not surplus to requirements, and it’s shameful that the council think of selling it now. The money realised from the sale, would not be used for years on the new Art Pavilion and museum. It can only be worth more in years to come?
Swindon needs a museum and art gallery, it does have one, let’s open it. It’s a scandal that a town with 250000 pop contemplates closing its museum and art gallery for an indefinite period. Everyone in the art world I have spoken to has expressed disbelief at these plans, and said surely that couldn’t happen?
The current plans to build a Cultural Quarter are laudable, but there are many challenges ahead, it may take 10-20 years to realise this ambition. In the interim, it has been proposed that Art on Tour where reproductions of artworks are taken to popular locations via pop up gazebos, be used in place of the art gallery, with the mantra ‘more art to more people’ being frequently used. Art on Tour is fine, but as a signpost to the real thing by which I mean a proper museum and art gallery where collections can be seen together.
The latest report, was passed at Cabinet on 8 September, suggesting that some of the collections be housed in the first floor of the Civic Offices which would be incrementally converted for use as somewhere pieces of art and museum artefacts could be viewed.
Effectively then, the latest plans are to use the £400000 allocated in 2019 to Apsley House, be spent on moving all collections from Apsley House, relocating some to the Civic Offices and putting the rest in storage. There have been to date no costings for any of this, no specifics. In their current state, the Civic Offices are not suitable to house SMAG. The space comprises office rooms off a corridor and the Council's proposal to improve the space “incrementally” does not imply that the space will do justice to the Art Collection any time soon. Out of sight, out of mind? This is without considering the security implications of public access to the building.
There is a proposal from the Parish Council that after discussions with SBC, they would be interested in the short term transfer of Apsley House to South Swindon Parish Council so they could reopen it as soon as possible. This would seem to be an ideal solution for resolving the loss of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
It is really important for Swindon and its environs that we have a working museum and art gallery in the interim between now and when the Cultural Quarter is built. We need to give people confidence that we know how to look after our inheritance, and going forward we can acquire and display bequeathed items. At the moment I have emails on an almost daily basis from people choosing to not leave art works or ceramic collections to Swindon. We need to wake up and not sleep walk our way into being entirely off the cultural map of the UK.
How can we even imagine a town the size of Swindon, and growing, without a Museum and Art Gallery?
I’ll end with where we started, the wording of the petition which 5000 people signed:
‘We support the call by the Friends of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery for the Swindon Collection of Modern British Art and the Museum Collections to be retained on show in Apsley House until they can be moved to a new home where they are on show to the public.
Finally, closing the museum and art gallery will seriously undermine credibility of Swindon Borough Council with potential funders of the Cultural quarter.'
There were points raised by Councillors Jane Milner-Barry, Jim Robbins and Jim Grant who agreed with the petition and made some excellent points including the fact that being an Arts Council priority area isn't a good thing, it's quite shameful, the Kimmeridge office development is 10 years behind schedule so how long will the CQ take to build? Cllrs Mary Martin and Nick Burns- Howell spoke about the importance of everyone seeing art. There was a vote, I think to dismiss the petition, it's hard to follow what's going on from the balcony, all the Conservatives put their hands up and the motion was carried.
In the debate on the Petition, Council Leader David Renard told councillors that the Cabinet Member for Culture and Heritage was keeping an open mind about the decision to move the collections to the Civic Offices, and that the proposal by South Swindon Parish would be evaluated to see whether it would be acceptable to the Cabinet and the Council as a whole.
SBC response to the petition 22 09 2021 as quoted on BBC Radio Wiltshire:
“Since the building was closed at the start of the pandemic its condition has deteriorated which would cost a lot of money to fix. In order to ensure Swindon’s collection continues to be visited, the council’s cabinet has agreed to authorise council officers to evaluate if Swindon Museum and Art Gallery collections could be temporarily housed in the Civic Offices. The civic offices would provide larger more accessible facilities with space for talks, events, school groups and tours, ensuring that much more of the art is available to view. The potential display of some of the collection alongside our accredited museum at Lydiard House will also be assessed.”
Before we went into the Civic Offices last Thursday, there were some photos taken of the assembled group, I haven't yet seen any, I did take this photo of Sandy dressed as a croc: