Council could sell its ‘inappropriate’ biblical paintings
Oxford politicians may consider selling off classical and biblical paintings deemed inappropriate for a “progressive” council.
A canvas depicting a Roman myth could be removed from the city’s 120-year-old town hall because it shows “gender-based violence”, if a motion is agreed by local councillors.
Another painting of Salome bearing the head of John the Baptist could also be removed and sold off under the proposals to remove “inappropriate” artworks.
It has been suggested that money raised by the sale of these works could be used to buy new paintings to “rebalance the lack of diversity” in the city council’s art collection.
The motion states: “Within Oxford City Council’s art collection there are several items that are of no practical value to the city, do not have a clear link to Oxford, and depict themes that are inappropriate for a progressive public body that wants to lead by example: namely animal cruelty and gender-based violence.”
Sale could fund new art
It adds that the artworks including a painting of the mythical Rape of the Sabine Women, a decapitated John the Baptist, and a sculpture depicting a fox hunt - which is not currently on display - are “not appropriate for display at the town hall”.
The motion further states that the artworks owned by the city couch which are displayed at the town hall depict very few women, and overall “do not represent Oxford’s ethnic diversity”.
Summertown Liberal Democrat councillor Katherine Miles, who brought the motion, told The Telegraph that the proposed sale of these works could fund the acquisition of new artworks which would balance out the many portraits of white male figures.
The Liberal Democrats have estimated that the sale of the artworks could raise £284,000 from the sale of the suggested trio of “inappropriate” pieces to fund this diversifying project.
The proposal has not yet been discussed by the council, which is controlled by Labour, a party which has sought to suggest amendments to the motion, claiming that the Grade II listing of Oxford’s Victorian town hall would make the removal of paintings difficult.
It has been suggested that work should nevertheless be undertaken to add “historical contextualisation around these gifts (the artworks), some of which depict themes that are incongruous for a progressive public body”.
It is understood that the council already has a working group in place tasked with diversifying options for how to diversify artworks, and has sought advice on how other listed buildings have managed to achieve this.
A company may be commissioned to help devise ways to improve diversity in the portraits on display in the town hall, according to council documents.
Struggle to make collection diverse
Research by the council has found that there are 115 paintings or other artwork on display, including 45 portraits, with 37 of these depicting men, three depicting women, and two depicting both men and women.
The council has previously struggled in its efforts to make this collection more diverse because funding would be needed to source new artworks, and to ensure that they fit with the historical interior of the ornate town hall building.
Ms Miles believes her suggestion of selling unwanted artworks would raise sufficient funds to overcome this problem.
Discussions about the diversity of public art in Oxford come after the city council created an “Anti-Racism Charter” in 2021, after pledging to tackle discrimination following Black Lives Matter protests the previous year.
The charter included commitments to “tackle institutional and structural racism”, to “promote and celebrate the history and achievements of ethnic minorities”, and to ensure “organisations in this city are diverse and representative of the people they serve”.
The council has indicated there is no current position on the proposal, as no debate has yet taken place.