Issue 160: 2018 06 28: Cash for Culture

28 June 2018

Cash for Culture

by J.R.Thomas

Last week the Chancellor worked his conjuring trick and produced another wodge of cash for the NHS, applying a sticking plaster perhaps strong enough to dish Labour, if not to cure the funding problems of our national treasure.  He also, shaking out the piggy bank, retrieving those pound coins from the back of the sofa, and watching the pavements closely for stray coppers, warned that no other spending department will be getting increased budgets for the foreseeable future.  Finances are tight once again.

Except maybe for the Ministry of Defence.  Gavin Williamson, snarling chief whip turned fighter for the fighters, wants more funding for the armed forces.  Britain’s defences are certainly in a better state than Germany’s – out of nine German Navy submarines none are currently operational and only about the third of the Luftwaffe is actually in a fit state to fly.  But snigger not too much, Brits, the UK has also been economising for many years on kit and most of what is now to hand is either old or obsolete.  We do have a magnificent aircraft carrier named after our monarch; though what an aircraft carrier is actually to be used for in this era of non-intervention and nuclear missiles is not clear.

But if we want to be defended, and maybe more importantly, if we want to have Mr Trump as our special friend, we will need to spend more on defence.  We should this year just meet that 2% of GDP target that NATO members agreed is the minimum a member country should spend on defence (Germany spends 1.2%) but Mr Trump is very unimpressed by his European allies commitment to the NATO budget.  There are 29 members of the long lasting defence association.  Just one of them provides half the expenditure required.  Guess which?  You don’t need to guess, Mr Trump will proudly tell you.  He will also tell you that if the European countries don’t dig deeper, America is not going to bother to defend a bunch of countries that cannot be bothered to defend themselves.  So, Mr Hammond, a little more cash on Defence.

And on roads, whilst you are about it.  The income from vehicle related taxation exceeds significantly the cost of running the road network.  That proverbial Martian would not think so, given the appalling state of the tarmac and massive congestion, awaiting relief for many years.  That damage and delay costs the economy a lot of money, but the Chancellor says he has no money to spare…

So, take your mind off all this.  Go to an art gallery or museum.  They are completely free.  Completely packed as well, but you can sit comfortably out of the rain or heat, enjoying the company of others, maybe inclement weather avoiders rather than art lovers.  Don’t try this in Paris or Amsterdam, it is €9 to enter the Louvre or €17.50 for the Rijksmuseum.  But in the UK in you go.  Leave your granny in substandard care, escape the underpersonned police force, avoid the beds in corridors of the NHS, and sit among the art, or the science, or the dinosaurs.  But whilst sitting, reflect on the odd order of priorities that puts art before people, health, defence, and all those other things that we rely on, even as they decay before our eyes.

It is indeed mostly art that you have to sit amongst to sit for free.  Try taking your picnic to an English Heritage property – they’ll want a fiver or more per head to sit among historic ruins, to sunbathe on the high alter of a lost priory.  Private museums charge of course – they have to, to survive.  But the National Gallery or the Tate?  Stroll in.  You’ll have to push past the vitrines appealing for money, avoid the café, and exit through the gift shop, where you will undergo a sophisticated attempt to part you from some cash.  Because these institutions are short of money too.  They have endowments of course, and Friends, and profits from special exhibitions and those cafes, but they too have to ask the Treasure nicely for any money needed to buy or repair or maintain things.  Increasingly this means that most major institutions cannot add to their collections – except by receiving things in lieu of tax, usually on the death of an owner, or occasionally by large donations (the Mellon or Sainsbury family charities have been great supporters of the National and National Portrait Galleries, for instance).

Curators are of course not happy about that position.  They are missing out on opportunities to buy important additions to their collections, which are going from British collections to wealthy private buyers in the Far East, the Middle East, and even in the USA (digital fortunes translate well into canvas and paint).  The answer is, you might think, obvious: a till at the front door.  The National Gallery would be much richer if it charged £10 at the entrance, even if the numbers of visitors halved.  The Tate Modern, that fashionable gallery de mode, gets two million visitors per year.  At a tenner a head even one million would add £10m to the gallery finances.  And it is not clear that imposing charges does actually have much effect on the visitor numbers.  Recent visitors to the Louvre will not have found the galleries to be empty echoing spaces, and intending art lovers (or heat avoiders) in Florence or Rome will find themselves in long queues to try to get into the Uffizi or the Vatican.  Both those require the giving up of substantial sums of the hard-earned to get in.

So why do we (or “they”), not grasp this particular nettle and help the great collections to help themselves?  They have been told to levy charges before, in the time of Edward Heath and what was intended to be a great reforming government, which imposed admission charges on all the state owned free museums and galleries.  The governments’ appetite for reforms turned out to be very limited, (the job was passed to Mrs Thatcher).  After the Heath government departed, in a miasma of U turns and strikes, the returning Mr Wilson got rid of those entrance charges, and even Mrs T did not get round to reintroducing them.  Since then it has become something of a banner for liberal leftism that the portals should be unencumbered by turnstiles, a view seemingly supported by the great curators (though one suspects that in their hearts they would welcome the money and the sense of partial independence their own revenue might give them).  Tristam Hunt at the V&A – 3.8 million free visitors last year – may tut-tut, but how about an extra £30m a year, Tris?  Just install those turnstiles.

That Heathian experiment did settle something interesting.  It disproved the argument that people would not visit if they had to pay.  Initially, it is true, numbers dropped, quite dramatically, but then they bounced back and were still going up when the charges were abolished.

There is a British social tendency to regard money as vulgar, a low matter to be glossed over and not discussed.  The art world in reality knows all about money; it deals in very large amounts of it indeed, but our liberal society and politicians clings to a curious belief that galleries should be free to all.  But the world is not free; it runs on vulgar dosh, and that involves choices.  Better cancer treatments, or free art galleries?  Repairing potholes and saving cyclists broken arms, or free museums?  Time to pay for what we love – and free up a soupcon of our taxes for things our fellow citizens need?

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