Cash-strapped museums need government’s helping hand

A report into public spending on museums and galleries published on Thursday last week (15 February) described the UK government as ‘notoriously mean’ in its support for the arts.

Professor of history at Princeton University, Sir David Cannadine, prepared the report ‘Why Collect?’ for the Art Fund national fundraising charity for the arts and the Wolfson Foundation charity. He believes public funding for museums and galleries in the UK is ‘belatedly required and urgently needed’.

The government has cut funding for the arts by 13% in real terms from £829 million in 2007 to £720 million. It gives less to the arts in percentage terms than its European counterparts including France, Denmark, Latvia and Hungary.

Art market prices pushed up to astronomical levels by billionaires from the Middle East, Asia and Russia have also impeded British museums and galleries from building their fine art collections through acquisitions, an integral part of their work.

Sir David’s report further explains how funding cuts have heaped pressure on curators to expand their workload to include community outreach and public engagement. This comes at the expense of key curatorial activities such as managing and displaying the objects in their collections and proactively acquiring new objects through purchases. Instead, museums are reliant on gifts and donations to develop their collections.

The pressure to deliver more for less has also resulted in more museum staff going part-time or having their jobs cut altogether. According to Sir David, ‘the morale, the confidence and the numbers of curatorial staff… have been in serious decline for some time’.

The report paints a very different picture to that of Neil Mendoza’s independent review of museums in England, which was published in November 2017. Sponsored by the UK government, the review determined that museums and galleries developed creative solutions in the face of drastic cuts and that ‘public funding is ultimately finite’.

On the contrary, Sir David believes the UK government must do more to support struggling arts institutions. ‘The pressures and expectations placed on museums and galleries . . . have never been greater, more insistent or more unrelenting’ he concluded.

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