The Gallery is owned by the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The Leader of the Council, Chris Robbins, says, in the local Council free newspaper:
” We’re now deciding what we’ll spend the money on, and I guarantee that it will make a real,tangible difference to the Gallery itself and to the experience of visitors, whether they live in the borough, come as part of school visit or have travelled from another country to explore Morris’ extraordinary vision”
Fine words and indeed credit does go to the Council for reversing their original decision on the future of the Gallery and embarking on its marvellous renovation.
I have a major concern with Councillor Robbins’ statement. It’s that term “we’re”. Who are the “we”? Experience across Europe has shown that decisions about the detail of cultural projects are not best handled by politicians. This Gallery owes its current status to the energy of those who campaigned to keep it open. Surely residents of Walthamstow, and “Morrisians” further afield, should be invited to contribute to and be part of the discussions?
Readers of Private Eye over the last few years have seen examples of less than transparent decisions and accountability by the Council. We must not let any suspicion of this apply to the £100,000 prize fund.
I suggest that Councillor Robbins arranges a public meeting in the Assembly Hall (with its Morris inscription over the entrance) and calls for open contributions on the use of the money. I am sure he would attract a large audience and a range of practical and imaginative suggestions. We know we can fill the Assembly Hall, as local citizens did to help save the EMD Granada cinema. I am sure ArtFund judges such as historian, and MP, Tristram Hunt would give us their views. The Friends of the William Morris Gallery have a key role. A public celebration of the prize and a forward looking debate.
A second stage would be to co-opt as non-voting observers several members of the local community to the appropriate Council committee which will be discussing the practical plans.
A third step would be a regular public updating on the William Morris Gallery website of progress, of options, of why certain proposals have been rejected, of how the money is going. Openess being the watchword.
Yes I’m biased and declare an interest: a local resident, a member of the ArtFund (good value for money!) and I have many books by and about Morris on my bookshelves.
William Morris was an indefatigable public speaker, taking his views across the country and speaking directly to citizens. A good model for the Council to adopt now.