UK funding in severe crisis

Martin Bailey, UK arts funding in ‘severe’ crisis, museum director says, The Art Newspaper, 10 April 2015

Two institutional leaders speak out about the government’s cultural cutbacks ahead of general election

Two UK national museum directors have condemned cuts in government funding, in a major pre-election debate held at the Wallace Collection in London on 9 March. Most museum directors are wary about criticising government, which funds them, but David Anderson, the director general of National Museum Wales (funded by the Welsh government) and the outgoing president of the Museums Association, says it is time to speak out.

Anderson describes the current crisis as “severe”. National and local government cuts over the past five years have already proved highly damaging, and further reductions are very likely in the coming years. “Austerity is killing many local museums,” he says. Anderson believes that private philanthropy cannot fill this gap, since 70% of these donations go to museums in London, making it very difficult for those in the English regions, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. “There is an urgent need for additional funding. The cultural funding model we have is failing.”

Christoph Vogtherr, the director of the Wallace Collection, spoke out in equally strong terms. His museum is funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, receiving £2.9m in the financial year which is just ending. He says that the Wallace’s government grant has fallen by almost 40% over the past five years.

On the very day of the debate, Vogtherr had received a letter from the culture department saying that it wants to “explore financing models that are less reliant on grant-in-aid”. The department is also asking the Wallace Collection for data that would be helpful in winning support for Treasury spending on museums. This would include information on the “economic and social benefits, support for the UK brand [for tourism] and value for money” provided by museums. Vogtherr commented that in his four years as director, he had never once seen the word “art” used in a letter from the culture department.

Vogtherr is also concerned over increasing privatisation of the cultural sector, citing the example of English Heritage. On 1 April, its 400 properties open to the public will be hived off into a charity, which is intended to become self-sufficient and lose its government funding after a seven-year transitional period.

Other speakers in the debate, chaired by Fiammetta Rocco of the Economist, were Robert Hewison, a cultural historian, and Maria Balshaw, the director of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. From 11 March a recording of the debate should be available on the Wallace Collection’s website.