30 April 2020
In for a Tenner
Restarting the Museums
Like a motorist trying to start a disused car, the government is starting to crank the engine of the stalled British economy. Not so much charging the battery or cleaning the spark plugs as encouraging the building trade back to work, allowing reopening of some stores; and, dare we suggest it, starting to turn a Nelsonian eye to some of the stricter interpretations of the Health Protection Regulations (2020). But getting the economy’s engine running again will not be easy and it will be years before everything is as it was and the bills for our extended compulsory holiday are paid.
And on that tricky road [That’s enough motoring analogies – Ed] there will be lots of collateral damage, some of which we may not notice until – surprise! – somethings’s gone. This week we will look at one sector where Covid-19 may have dire consequences, never to be recovered, a final blow to a sector already in some disarray.
The Tate Gallery started as an exhibition place for collections of British paintings in 1897, and jogged cheerfully along until the later decades of the C20th when it began a sustained programme of expansion in its collections, and in its locations – Liverpool, St Ives, and Tate Modern on the London South Bank, which was recently greatly enlarged (as have been the original buildings in Pimlico). In 2001 the Blair administration, having finally located the magic money tree (growing in Kirkcaldy next to the home of Chancellor Gordon Brown apparently), abolished entry charges to publicly owned galleries and museums. The sudden gap in income was to be met by the Treasury – and by a more commercial approach to funding from the galleries themselves. This was immensely popular among the public, as handing out free gifts so often is. Admissions to Tate Britain were up 72% in the following year.
It took a little time for the sector to realise that Treasury handouts are not always reliable or index linked. The larger players soon began to appreciate that commercial imperative and started to look for ways to “monetise the product”. So, much improved shops selling everything from wallpaper to high quality reproductions, super-stellar exhibitions of popular artists with entry at premium prices (a Tate speciality and huge money spinner), and gastronomic delights in the catering areas. Remember “an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached”? That was Saatchi and Saatchi for the V&A from the 1980’s. The arts sector howled in derision, but the caff made loadsamoney and by the early C21st every large museum or gallery had a caff, and often several restaurants as well – Tate Modern alone has four.
The big players became very good at cuddling up to big business and big private donors, and the result was usually big donations. Money for buying more exhibits, educational outreach, for new branches, new buildings – the Tate got both at St Ives, built in 1993 from European Union money and private donations (much from the Henry Moore Foundation), and hugely extended in 2017.
Nothing wrong with this of course and Tate St Ives is a wonderful place to shelter from the Cornish rain with tea and cake. Except for one thing, which became glaringly obvious after the felling of that tree in Kirkcaldy in 2008. There was not enough money to go round. The big players continued hoovering up whatever state and private generosity could provide; but the little local galleries, the part time museums, many partly voluntary organisations, found that they simply could not raise enough dosh to keep them open. The arts sector is astonishingly resilient and private people with an enthusiasm can be very generous, but over the last twelve years those small local outlets, often of great regional or specialist interest, have often found the going very tough. Thirty museums closed in the devastation of “austerity” between 2010 and 2012, including large parts of the National Film Museum, several museums of rural life and artefacts, the Army Transport Museum, and parts of the Leeds Armley Industrial Museum (unable to afford building repairs and exacerbated by recent flooding). That trend has continued, albeit at a slower rate, with partial closures, reduced opening hours, increased reliance on unpaid volunteers, and sales of some exhibits. Some local galleries and museums introduced charges, but that reduces visitor numbers and thus sales in gift shops and cafés.
Now, to a hard pressed sector will come further worries and retrenchments. The Government has been remarkably open-handed in the past few weeks, but the vast cost of that will have to be recovered and that will mean cuts – and ones that do not bear down on those new Conservative voters in the post-industrial Midlands and North. Private generosity will also carry the costs of recent events; much money has been gifted in recent weeks both to the NHS and to health charities and social support, and charities are expecting fund-raising this year and onwards to be very difficult. Local councils, key funders of small galleries and museums, were already searching for budget cuts this year, most having increased local tax by the maximum possible amount. Now they will find those stretched budgets groaning under extra costs and reduced rates income as businesses fail, and Council Treasurers are sending out for new red pens – the only expenditure allowed this year. Austerity will not be the name but it will be the game, and in searching for targets that will not cause populist political apoplexy the “arts” will be top of the list.
Is there a solution? Possibly. Will government apply it? Probably not. Because the obvious answer is to force the big galleries, the super museums, the London elite, to impose entry charges. Just like most of the rest of the world, they should be making the public pay for their pleasure and education. The Duke of Bedford does not admit passers-by free to Woburn to see his world class art collection, nor the Duke of Devonshire to see his, the National Trust to their gardens, or even the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust to see their magnificent historic pumping station. All of those proprietors rely on admission charges to pay the bills. Why should the boards of the Tate Gallery, the British Museum, the V&A not do the same?
In doing that they would enable private and state support to be applied to those locally and regionally valued but cash poor institutions who, without help, will simply vanish in the post Corvid-19 storms. They are a key part of our arts heritage and the time has come for the giants of that world to give way to the needs of their baby siblings.