Ben Uri Gallery to sell off 700 artworks amid pivot to world of research
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Ben Uri Gallery to sell off 700 artworks amid pivot to world of research

Decision to 'redefine' art collection made in order to maintain independence, amid prospect of merger with another body

Merry-Go-Round by Mark Gertler
Merry-Go-Round by Mark Gertler

The Ben Uri Gallery and Museum is to sell off 700 artworks as it part of a strategic pivot into the world of research and mental health.

Announcing the move, chair David Glasser said the decision to “redefine” the art collection was made in order to remain independent, explaining that the alternative was to merge with a university or other institution.

The sell-off, which represents roughly half the gallery’s collection, will begin at Sotheby’s auction-house next month, with the 700 pieces representing ten percent of the institution’s total insurance value.

Selling the artwork will allow the gallery and museum to extend its involvement in researching the contribution of immigrants to British visual arts since 1900 and to concentrate on its work using art as dementia therapy.

Glasser said art not sold would be given “free of charge” as inter-museum or community gift transfers, “selected on the basis that they – unlike Ben Uri – will be able to generate meaningful public benefit from them”. He added: “The majority of the works identified for new homes have rarely been exhibited.”

Ben Uri was founded 103 years ago in the “Jewish ghetto” of Whitechapel and was the cornerstone of Jewish cultural activity in London until the late 1970s, and in 1984 sold one of its crown jewels to the Tate – ‘Merry Go Round’ by Mark Gertler.

In 1995 the gallery lost its home, after the synagogue housing it was sold, and a new board of trustees led by Glasser took over in 2000. A year later the charity found temporary accommodation in a rented gallery in St. John’s Wood, but Glasser said now was the right time to redefine its future.

“We concluded after our centenary in 2015 that the property market had outpaced our potential to secure premises and that the charity’s long-term value would be best served by redefining our public engagement and consolidating resources.”

He added that “this could be achieved either through a strategic merger, most likely with a university, or alternatively, independently concentrating on three core areas of focus,” including Jewish and other immigrant contribution to British visual arts since 1900, a “redefined collection,” and work on arts and dementia interventions.

Ben Uri researchers have now been asked to “develop the first online digital dictionary, comprehensively recording the immigrant contribution since 1900, of artists across all disciplines, patrons, dealers, teachers, critics and scholars to Britain’s visual arts culture.”

The gallery said this “consolidates and expands the museum’s original academic focus on Jewish émigré artists, first launched in 2003, and expanded in 2011,” adding that it is “inspired by Ben Uri’s Jewish heritage, its immigrant founding fathers and the Ben Uri Collection”.

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