The value of nothing

This is a blog about art, but bear with me, I shall come to housing at the end.

Being a part-time painter, I recently did a large painting of Stanley Buildings at King’s Cross. These 5 blocks, housing 104 families, were built in 1864 by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company as tenement flats for local workers. Legend has it that The Pogues lived here in the early eighties, by which time it was a short-life scheme. Now only one block remains, kept company by the adjacent German Gymnasium of 1865, and overshadowed by the new towers that are rapidly emerging from the King’s Cross hinterland.

Stanley Buildings King's Cross

Stanley Buildings King’s Cross

Anyway, a friend of mine who is a senior officer in Camden saw the painting and mentioned that the borough has many paintings of local scenes on its walls and that the Council might wish to acquire it. He would check, he said. The response from the officer in charge of arts was dismissive. “We haven’t bought work for well over a decade now, and highly unlikely we would in the current climate. In fact we also avoid donations as it still takes staff time and cost to manage works.”

Even donations! What a sad reflection this is of the current state of mind in local government. Joseph Chamberlain would be spinning in his grave.

A few days later I happened to be at the brilliant Francis Bacon Old Masters’ exhibition in Norwich. I noticed that one of his paintings, a Pope from 1951, was on loan from Aberdeen Art Gallery. This is a large canvas, (1.4 by 2 metres) and would probably fetch at least £40 million if it ever came to auction. Yet it had obviously been bought by a far-sighted council officer in the fifties for a few hundred pounds. What an investment! During the nineteenth century local authorities saw it as a badge of civic pride to amass a large collection of works. Many of them now have priceless collections of pre-Raphaelites among many others. In the twentieth century all of the major provincial art galleries – Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield, Hull, Newcastle – would have an annual budget to buy artworks, making hard decisions about whether to purchase a single work by an established artist, or several paintings by lesser known artists. Do we buy a Ford Madox Brown or five cheaper works by emerging artists like Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud? Of course out of every twenty works they bought, several might turn out to be duds, but one might prove to be a sound investment and pay for itself many times over. At the time, there were no doubt critics asking why councils were wasting money on buying art: I doubt any would raise the question now. Those councils that invested wisely find themselves with works that have increased massively in value. Art and property are two of the most lucrative investments of the past 100 years, so long as you know what you are doing and invest well.

The same principles apply to housing. Historic investment in bricks and mortar more than pays for itself over time, as this example of the Boundary Estate shows only too well. Governments that know the price of everything and the value of nothing cut off their noses to spite their face. They refuse to invest, they sell off valuable assets, they think only about the short-term, then grumble when the housing benefit bill goes through the roof and hundreds of families end up living in bed and breakfast.

Investing in high quality bricks and mortar, like investing in high quality art, pays off in the long term. As it happens, that is also the core message of SHOUT’s recent Capital Economics report!


(First published at Inside Housing on 28th July 2015)

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