UK museums profit from recession

Survey by the Art Fund reveals many are benefiting from discounted acquisitions

LONDON. A survey by the Art Fund released on 29 April shows that UK museums and galleries are purchasing acquisitions at a considerable discount, thanks to the recession. In a survey of just over 300 museums (one-fifth of the total), half had made purchases in the past six months. Of these, 58% had got a better-than-expected museum discount or had paid less than anticipated at auction.

Among respondents was Falmouth Art Gallery, which had wanted to buy Charles Hemy’s Along Shore Fishermen, 1890, a local scene. Although the Bonhams auction estimate was £20,000 to £30,000, a Hemy of this quality had gone for over £100,000 in February last year. Falmouth was therefore advised it could bid to £48,000, and successfully raised this sum. The auction took place on 16 September 2008, the day after the Lehman Brothers collapse, and bidding was slack. Falmouth successfully bought the Hemy at the low estimate.

Nottingham City Museums and Galleries was at Frieze last October, where their curator saw Sam Taylor-Wood’s Escape Artist (Multicoloured), 2008, which was on sale at White Cube for £35,000. A 15% discount was negotiated, for a sale to a museum. Art prices fell, and when the deal was finalised in January, a further discount was agreed, bringing the cost down to £22,000. The photograph has just gone on ­display in the galleries at Nottingham Castle.

The survey also looked at the wider issue of how museums and galleries are faring during the recession. Visitor numbers are up, possibly because people are taking holidays in the UK, rather than travelling abroad. Some 35% of museums enjoyed an increase in numbers compared with the same period a year ago, although 21% suffered a decline (the remainder were either steady or do not count numbers).

More difficult to interpret are figures on budgets and the workforces. Sixty-five per cent of museums said that they had seen a reduction in their budget, which is difficult to understand, since the majority in the survey were national or local authority museums, whose budgets for the year are set in advance (which would have been before the recession). However, it is possible that museum administrators are curbing expenditure in anticipation of future budget cuts.

A major regional gallery in the north of England reported that despite having just had its best ever year for visitors, its core funding from the local authority would be cut from April. “We are also concerned about the negative impact of the recession on other sources of funding, because almost half of our income comes from outside the local authority,” it explained.

Twenty-four per cent of museums said they had experienced an expansion of their workforce, which is a surprising response, and at variance with the fact that budgets appear to be being cut. The Art Fund believes that this is because museums may have misinterpreted the question and taken into account volunteers, who are increasingly being taken on to replace paid staff. Fifteen per cent of museums reported redundancies.

Interestingly, sponsorship does not seem as badly affected as has been feared. Although 22% of museums have suffered a fall, 14% actually had an increase (with the remainder either seeing no change or not seeking sponsorship). However, this relatively bright picture may be because sponsorship deals are arranged some months in advance, and had therefore been committed before the recession.

The Art Fund intends to repeat its recession survey in six months’ time, and comparison with the initial results should be revealing.

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5 Jan 11
20:27 CET


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