Ten years of free entry, but can it last?
Why the political gain in the United Kingdom outweighs the economic cost
By Javier Pes. Museums, Issue 232, February 2012
Published online: 01 February 2012
london. Maintaining free entry to the UK’s national museums, as the secretary of state for culture Jeremy Hunt blogged in December on the tenth anniversary of its introduction, doesn’t come cheap: it costs around £44m a year to maintain free admission to national museums that previously charged, or around £354m in total since 1999. And yet he is happy to support it.
Why is the government backing a scheme launched in 2001 by the Labour government it routinely criticises for free-spending? The coalition is committed to reducing the country’s budget deficit, which peaked at more than 10% of gross domestic product before it came to power in 2010. Yet universal free entry, which Scotland and Wales also introduced in 2001, seems sacrosanct even though cutting the deficit is one of the coalition government’s mantras.
Reasons to stay free
When in opposition, George Osborne, now the chancellor of the exchequer, promised that a Conservative government would be committed to free entry. His pledge at Tate Britain in 2009 was repeated in the party’s 2010 election manifesto. Thus the Conservatives avoided picking a fight with a powerful arts lobby, and politically well-connected national museum directors long-committed to free entry, such as the British Museum’s Neil MacGregor, formerly the director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, and Mark Jones, then the director of the Victoria and Albert (V&A). The latter was delighted to abolish the museum’s £5 entry charge, and see visitor numbers leap from 1 million to 2.3 million in its first year.
Free entry looks set to remain now that Osborne and Hunt are in power. They have little to gain from a u-turn. Backing free entry helped “detoxify” the Conservative brand, similar to its commitment to protect overseas aid. These might not win or lose voters but every little helps when seeking to lose a reputation for being the “nasty party”, in the words of Theresa May, now the home secretary. Middle-class voters, particularly in the south-east of England who are most likely to visit London’s big museums, expect them to be free—and resent suggestions otherwise. Hunt’s predecessor Hugo Swire, who once worked at the National Gallery, blotted his copy book as shadow culture secretary, after he suggested in 2007 that directors and trustees should be able to choose whether to charge, a statement that was hastily clarified to stress the party’s commitment to free admission.
Currently museum directors and their trustees are in effect compelled to offer free entry by the government, not a traditional Tory position. Directors are now left in a bind. They cannot charge, reluctantly or otherwise, after the government spared them from the 25% to 40% cut in funding many feared. The cut was still considerable at 15%, announced in the spending review in 2010, which takes them to 2014/15. Something has to give: after restructuring, 20 posts went at the British Museum last year, 12 at the V&A, and 28 full and part-time staff across the Tate’s galleries.
Supporters of free entry point to its success in terms of increasing attendance. Across the UK visits have increased by 51% since 2000, statistics collected by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport reveal. Visitors are predominantly middle-class, and many in London’s museums are overseas tourists. Some argue these visitors can afford to pay something, as they do for many temporary exhibitions such as Leonardo at the National Gallery (£16, until 5 February), Lucian Freud opening this month at the National Portrait Gallery (£14) or Gerhard Richter (£12.70), which closed last month at Tate Modern. Free entry has widened access, encouraging people to visit who would be put off by even a low entry charge. The number of visitors from the most disadvantaged backgrounds now make up 2.5% of the British Museum’s visitors and 5% of the V&A’s.
When museums do charge, visitor figures plummet, as they did in the 1990s. Introducing a £7 ticket to visit the Royal Observatory led to a 55% fall in attendance (see p14). Royal Museums Greenwich’s flagship, the National Maritime Museum, remains free.
That said, around 50 million visitors enjoy the 50 free national museums across the UK a year. A back of the envelope calculation admittedly, but £125m could be raised if half that number paid £5 per person: useful income for hard-pressed directors struggling to balance a budget.
Opponents of charging argue that free entry results in greater value for money for government funding. Much of a museum’s budget goes on fixed costs. At the British Museum, for example, when salaries, pension, social security, early retirement and redundancy costs were added up, the bill came to around £39.3m (2010/11). The museum’s grant in aid that year was £43.5m. So halving the number of visitors to any museum effectively doubles its subsidy per head. Instead of £7 per head at the British Museum, it would be £14, for example. Mark Jones recalls that admissions used to provide less than 10% of the V&A’s total budget. His successor, Martin Roth, also backs free entry, although in Dresden the museums he ran all charged admission.
Charging is also unlikely to return because there is a consensus supporting free entry among directors. The picture was different in the 1990s when opinion was divided, with some directors ideologically in favour of charging. Treating visitors as customers made institutions more visitor-focused, they argued, and did spur modernisation and improved marketing.
Another reason why free entry will probably stay is that it took a battle to scrap it, requiring a change in taxation. While free museums paid value added tax, charging museums were treated as exempt businesses.
Arguably the visitors who most benefit from free entry are international tourists to London. Around 18 million overseas visitors enjoyed national museums last year, twice as many as ten years ago. Last year there were 3.6 million overseas visitors to the British Museum (60% of its total), 1.2m visitors to the V&A (40%) and 2.5m to the National Gallery (49%). Some question the value of subsidising tourists who are happy to pay for London’s other cultural and heritage destinations, be it St Paul’s Cathedral (£14.50) or the Tower of London (£19.80). The counter argument is that free entry provides wider economic benefits: free museums contribute to London’s attractiveness as a destination, and the money saved visiting a non-charging museum will be spent on something else in the capital. The altruistic argument is that free entry is a sign of civilised society (emulated last year by China).
The national museums that withstood the political pressure to introduce charges in the 1990s and remained free, notably the British Museum, National Gallery and the Tate galleries (except its St Ives gallery, which does charge), have during the same period seen their visitor numbers rise, albeit slightly (see table, p13). This has helped to keep the British Museum, National Gallery and Tate Modern among the top five most visited museums in the world, as our annual attendance survey shows (The Art Newspaper, April 2011, p24). With government funding unlikely to increase any time soon, there are growing fears that while attendance remains high, the strain on institutions’ budgets—and their staff—will grow also.
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