What Price to Maintain the “Cathedrals of Culture”

First published in Canvas: 19th February 2013

The dominant conception of museums in British culture is that they are public institutions created for the common good and funded by public money. In spite of the fact that many of the most popular museums in the world were created to house private collections, when private sources of income are used to sponsor exhibitions or art installations, they are generally perceived to be infringing on the objectivity of its meaning, as if commercialisation somehow cheapens the heritage we are attempting to preserve.

A large number of our museums were born out of the post-war urge to make art available to the general population in order to enrich their lives. This drove public institutions – including local councils – to purchase exhibits from the vaults of large metropolitan institutions and put it on display in local museums. Be they paintings by noted artists, or relics from the industrial age, councils sought to create their own cultural spaces to serve the community.

This idea is now being challenged. It is obvious that the cuts in funding to the arts are reaching critical levels, and that drastic measures may be required to ensure that many of our “cathedrals of culture” stay viable. The problem is particularly acute in local government, where councils are being forced to swallow massive budgetary contractions, and the arts sector is seen as a relatively easy sector to make cutbacks.

Among the many examples up and down the country, it is the case of Newcastle Council which stands out. In November 2012, it proposed to cut £90m from its arts budget, removing all funding from the Great North Museum, Live Theatre, Northern Stage, and the Theatre Royal; and the subsidy to all other Tyne and Wear Archives and Museum services (TWAM). Subsequently reversed, it nonetheless stands as an indicator of the brevity of the situation.

Since the 2010 election, scores of museums have seen their funding streams slow to a trickle, and their future has been imperilled as a result. In 2011-2012, a third of museums faced cuts in two consecutive years, and a quarter had to close some or all of their exhibits. Museums large and small have been affected, including the Pumphouse Educational Museum in Southwark, the Etruria Industrial Museum in Stoke, the Balfour Museum and the Malton Museum.

One possible solution is to invite museums and other heritage organisations to access greater amounts of private funding. In November 2011, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), in conjunction with the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and Arts Council England (ACE) launched Catalyst, which aims to help cultural organisations access funding from private sources. The initiative was split into three strands: match funding to help build endowments; capacity building to help organisations develop more sustainable fundraising; and Arts and Heritage fundraising building grants to help organisations with limited fundraising experience.

In June 2012, it was announced that 34 arts and heritage organisations had been successful in obtaining £154m of funding. Of those who spoke on the occasion of the announcement, all stressed the importance of maintaining the balance between public and private funding. “Public funding of the arts in this country is at the heart of their success. It enables organisations to attract private investors, and gives them the confidence to continue to take the bold artistic leaps that keep audiences coming.”

In the main, museums did not benefit from the Catalyst exercise, as applications were largely restricted to ACE member organisations. But without help of this kind, scored of local authority museums are at risk of closure and councils forced to sell off their collections. Far from exotic, these museums tell the history of the local area. If councils are forced to sell parts of their collections, be it the exotic trinkets donated by colonial dignitaries from centuries past.

But there is another way?

In Asia, private museums are booming, as private collectors opening museums to display their collections. This is nothing new; the Tate and the British Museum both began as installations for private collections. Many of these ‘museums’ are simply galleries – displays of historical items. But their creation is fuelled by the same desire that fuelled our public museums. Budi Tek, a Chinese-Indonesian collector and museum owner, stated: ‘In my perspective, sharing the passion and the happiness with public via opening the museum is an extension of love to society.’

In May 2012 forum held during the Hong Kong International Art Fair attracted nearly 50 individuals seeking advice on how to help their museums thrive. Many of them have faced criticism that their museums are vanity projects – a demonstration of wealth and devoid of intellectual content – that could not be sustained for any length of time. If anything, the exercise has encouraged the Chinese government to build more public museums.

In the UK however, collectors are simply happy that their artwork is being displayed. The Zabludowicz Collection in Kentish Town London was opened by the billionaire couple Anita ad Poju Zabludowicz to show their collection of 2,000 paintings. “We hated having so many works in storage which had never been shown to the public,” they stated, “and we understood that there was a point between art school and public gallery or museum which we could assist in filling.”

Of course, there are several issues to consider when assessing the suitability of private museums, particularly if they hold items of historical importance. The Zabludowicz Gallery for example, has no entry fee. Does the fact that the art displayed there is largely contemporary mean that the Zabludowicz’s would be justified in charging a fee, as their work is not of historical importance? Or would an entrance fee make their installation inaccessible to a large section of the local population?

Perhaps it is time to re-introduce entrance fees to our national museums? On the one hand we have a no entry fee policy for some of our national museums in London which have 100,000s of foreign tourists going through their doors every year. On the other, we have local museums, which survive on a shoe string charging modest fees to view small collections. It was a great egalitarian achievement for the Labour Party to deliver free entry to national collections in 1999, and visitors from lower income families have increased. But perhaps it is better that we take the pressure off regional heritage, which is the true history of our nation, by alleviating the disparity between what can be seen for free, and what we have to pay for.

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