Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Why collect? report on museum collecting

Christ Between Saints Paul and Peter, by Pietro Lorenzetti, c.1320. Courtesy of the National Gallery.

Art Fund report calls for increased investment in museums and their collections, Museums + Heritage, 15 February 2018

Why Collect? a report on museum collecting in the UK by historian Sir David Cannadine, was launched at Tate Modern and commissioned by the Art Fund and the Wolfson Foundation to mark 40 years of their collaboration in bringing art and objects into public collections.

Why Collect? highlights what it says is an ever-widening gap between the spiralling prices of art works on the international art market and the limited acquisition funds available to museums and galleries in the UK. The report calls for increased investment in museums and their collections, as public spending on museums has decreased by 13 per cent in real terms over the last decade. It is, writes Cannadine, a report that ‘instead of giving comfort and reassurance, expresses anxiety and concern.’

“If ever there was a time to increase investment in museum curators and their collections, then that time is now,” said Cannadine, who is Dodge Professor of History, Princeton University, Editor, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and President of the British Academy. “I call on government to take action in response by accompanying and encouraging philanthropic funding and very much hope that this report may assist the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in their conversations with the Treasury in seeking for public funding for the arts to be developed and expanded.”

Cannadine has traced the history of collecting in museums and galleries from the 1830s to the present day, and is accompanied by 11 case studies which explore various facets of the social and cultural impact of collecting. This is supported by statistical evidence from a national survey involving 266 collecting institutions.

The report found the impact of new acquisitions of works of art and objects to be transformative both for museums and the people visiting them. Case studies include the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull’s purchase of Pietro Lorenzetti’s early Renaissance masterpiece Christ between Saints Paul and Peter (c1320), which significantly raised the profile of the gallery and, alongside several high profile national partnership exhibitions, helped to demonstrate increased confidence and ambition during the lead-in to Hull’s bid to become UK City of Culture in 2017.

“To have an historian of his stature surveying this important area is invaluable,” said Stephen Deuchar, Director, Art Fund. “His concerns over the lack of public investment in the growth and care of our nation’s collections, and in the people responsible for them, should be heeded. Museum collections have a demonstrable impact on people’s cultural lives and wellbeing, and are thus a vital part of the social fabric of our country.”

Deuchar also said that the Art Fund’s charitable programme plans to increase its grant giving to £10m a year by 2020. In 2016 Art Fund gave over £4.7m in acquisition grants to help museums build their collections, 75% of which were awarded to organisations outside London.


Investment in Collections

  • Cannadine cites the £333m recently paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, more than half the entire amount that the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and other London-based official bodies allocated to England’s museums and galleries in 2016-17.
  • A recent survey is referenced which shows the UK government spends less on culture in percentage terms than Denmark, France, Hungary or Latvia.
  • The museums of the UK have experienced a decade of diminished funding:  in real terms, public spending on museums and galleries in England has declined by 13 per cent, from £829m in 2007 to £720m 10 years later, and the reduction has been greatest in funding provided by local authorities.
  • There is evidence to suggest that through this decline ‘attention (and thus resources) has shifted away from what must be the core purpose [of] museums and galleries…to maintain, develop and curate their collections’.
  • The morale, confidence and the numbers of curatorial staff, who are essential to the management, display and development of the nation’s public art collections, ‘have been in serious decline for some time’.
  • For those employed in museums ‘salary levels are 7 per cent lower than the market average in comparable sectors, rising to 25 per cent below market rate for junior roles in collections and curations management.’
Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2018
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