Cultural policy United Kingdom

The UK election: Don’t panic, be stoical and think radical

There will be no public sympathy for special exemptions in the fiscal pain ahead...The arts must share the burden

The cuts are coming! “Tough choices”, “difficult decisions”; however our new political masters phrase it, the directors of museums and arts institutions in the UK may have less money to play with over the next five years (at least). Traditionally, when the arts are faced with spending cuts a collective cry is raised: “The arts enrich our lives, they must be protected!” True. But this time things are different. There will be no public sympathy for special exemptions in the fiscal pain ahead. The UK’s budget deficit must be reduced. The arts must share the burden. Producing spurious statistics to show that a 10% cut leads to a 50% fall in creative output will be pointless.

So what lies ahead? The first thing I would say is, don’t panic. The cuts will not be very dramatic. At first, it is likely that about £66m will have to be cut from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s total budget—not a great deal. And we are lucky in the UK that our funding model for the arts (predominantly state funded through annual grants) has protected us from the type of sudden cut seen in the US, where endowments have shrunk, private donations have dried up, and organisations have closed.

Of course, some of our pain has only been postponed, and arts directors in the UK will therefore be looking anxiously at the new Conservative ministers in the cultural department. Doubtless, many will have dark memories of previous “Tory cuts”. But despite the Thatcherite past, it seems to me that the modern Conservative party “gets” the arts. Why? Because as any lobbyist will tell you, it is far easier to change party policy while in opposition, and happily the last few years have seen a dramatic improvement in Tory attitudes to the arts.

During the 2005 election, the Conservatives became the first party ever to produce a comprehensive arts manifesto, and in 2007 they commissioned a detailed policy report from John Tusa’s Arts Taskforce. (Disclaimer, I helped write both documents.) The Conservatives are now committed to, among other things, long-term annual subsidy, free museum entry and dramatically increasing one-off capital grants from the National Lottery. The Conservative arts document for the 2010 election went further. Arts institutions will be freed from much of the expense heaped upon them over the last decade. The targets will go. The bureaucracy will be cut. There may be a little less money, but there will be a lot less red tape. Shrewder directors have prepared for cuts already.

In the long-term, a short-term funding shortfall from the state may have the benefit of forcing museums to cast their net wider for revenue. Further steps will be taken to encourage private philanthropy, not to replace state funding but to force museums to look outward, through the use of matched funding, and erode the creatively stultifying mindset of state reliance. Museums must re-engage with visitors, their supporters, and new audiences if they are to diversify their funding base. We need to be radical, and even look overseas for revenue if necessary. If the Louvre has a lucrative franchise in Abu Dhabi, and the Guggenheim one in Bilbao, why has Tate only got as far as Liverpool?

Aside from considering where our museums open, we should also look at when they are open. For no reason other than convention, going to a museum is seen as a daytime activity. So let’s have regular late night openings. Surely such openings could be sponsored. Then we could start to attract a new generation of potential benefactors.

Finally, I also hope we can brush away some of the strange inefficiencies and paradoxes that exist in the sector. It really shouldn’t take 12 people to hang one painting (truly, I have seen this). Works of art on loan don’t always need to be flown first class with an accompanying curator. Some museums could merge their back offices and security staff, particularly neighbouring institutions in London. And, can we any longer avoid deaccessioning, if acquisition funds are now empty and museums have to fund acres of storage for third-rate pictures?

The writer is a director of Philip Mould Ltd, and a former advisor to the Conservative Party on the arts and museums

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