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Hull’s Ferens gallery to reopen after £5.2m refit backed

 One of the most important regional galleries in England is to reopen on Friday after a £5.2m refurbishment, paid for in part by a cash-strapped local council that said cuts to culture funding were a “false economy”.

The Ferens in Hull has been closed for the last 16 months while it underwent an essential revamp to fix the gallery’s temperature, humidity and lighting systems. The work was deemed necessary if it was to be trusted to care for world-class art.

The investment, £3.7m of which came from the local council, is already paying dividends as Hull begins its UK City of Culture celebrations. On Thursday, 100 years after local industrialist TR Ferens purchased the plot of land on which the museum stands, its new star attraction was revealed: a restored 14th-century gold panel painting, Christ Between Saints Paul and Peter, by Italian Pietro Lorenzetti, saved for the nation after the government placed an export bar to stop it being snapped up by a foreign buyer.

Unveiling the painting on Thursday, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, the director of the National Gallery, said he was “very envious” of Hull for owning such an exquisite piece of art. “I do hope one day you will consider lending it to us,” he said.

Also at the Ferens in 2017 is the showFrancis Bacon: Nervous System, and works by the internationally acclaimed sculptor Ron Mueck. Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and his Wife will also arrive on loan from the Queen’s royal collection.

Hull council has been criticised by some residents who are unhappy that the city’s cultural budget has remained untouched while brutal savings have been made in almost every other non-ring-fenced area, admitted the deputy council leader, Darren Hale. Central government funding to Hull in 2020 will be 55% of what it was in 2010, he said, representing a loss of £136m over 10 years.

“Many cash-strapped councils are making difficult choices, with some choosing to cut arts, leisure and culture. At Hull city council we will not be doing that,” he said. “We have managed to not just preserve but enhance our cultural offering. It has been a struggle. People say ‘why are the cuts not applied evenly?’ But we see that investment in culture boosts the economy. To cut the culture budget would be a false economy. We spend £1.5m on galleries each year and we know that they bring in two or three times that amount to the local economy – hopefully much more than that this year. It’s a no-brainer.”

Matt Hancock, the culture minister, said councils that cut culture budgets were acting “politically”. The government contributed £1m to the Ferens revamp, with the Arts Council providing a further £500,000.

Hancock told the Guardian at the Ferens relaunch: “All the evidence shows that investment in culture improves the towns and cities where that investment is made. It improves these places socially, it brings people together and it boosts the economy.”

Asked if he had sympathy for councils that have slashed arts budgets, such as Lancashire, which is closing more than 20 libraries and shutting museums, he said: “Hull shows that you can make efficiencies elsewhere and deliver investment in the arts. Making a political decision not to do that is a mistake. I think that people right across the country in councils that are looking to balance their books should see the impact of cultural investment in places like Hull.”

During its closure, Ferens lent out one of its treasures, Nicolas Régnier’s Saint Sebastian Tended By the Holy Irene and Her Servant, to the National Gallery for its Beyond Caravaggio exhibition. Reviewing the show on Radio 4, an eminent broadsheet art critic said he had not seen the painting before because it had been “hidden away in Hull”. Hancock urged such critics to leave London. “Get on the train,” he said.