Five more divisive years for museums and art galleries

The new Conservative government has so far kept quiet about its plans for the arts but the signs point to a fractious battle for resources between national and local institutions

Following the general election, what are the prospects for England’s museums and galleries? The Conservative Party’s manifesto gives little away. There’s a single paragraph on “Our world-leading museums, galleries and heritage”. This has a bizarre preoccupation with Manchester, perhaps because of the city’s proximity to Chancellor George Osborne’s Tatton constituency.

Alongside re-announcing several shiny new projects for this “northern powerhouse”, we’re also reminded about the previously announced Stonehenge road tunnel and a new London concert hall. The latter is intended to please Simon Rattle when he moves to the London Symphony Orchestra from the Berlin Philharmonic in 2017. The price tag is £300m and counting and the favoured site is currently occupied by the Museum of London, which will have to move to Smithfield Market before construction can begin. The capital’s latest grand project may not see a note played before Rattle retires.

The manifesto also reminds us of a “brand new heritage charity” called English Heritage. Yes, that name is familiar. Until very recently, English Heritage was a government-funded agency; now it has to raise its own resources to care for its 400-plus buildings and monuments. This puts it into fundraising competition with the National Trust. Competition for cash will intensify as every museum, gallery and historic site is now expected to seek out the local rich and apply to a static number of foundations.

Deeper cuts likely

The only thing in the manifesto that comes even close to new cultural policy says “our cultural institutions [will] benefit from greater financial autonomy to use their budgets as they see fit”. That is: we’ll cut your financial legs off but give you the freedom to acquire your own prosthetic limbs.

In the approved modern manner, the final manifesto museum commitment is “we will keep our major national museums and galleries free to enter”. Taking inflation into account, national museums have had their government grants cut by 30% since 2010—and more cuts seem likely. Whitehall corridors whisper with fear of the “emergency” budget scheduled for 8 July that might bring in cuts to already announced funding. (That happened last year to museums in Wales.)

Emergency cuts or not, everyone expects a comprehensive spending review in the autumn. There will be relief if it limits further cuts to 5%. Some nationals are already warning they will be unable to sustain free admission if funding reductions are larger.

If autumn’s cuts exceed 5% there will be a noisy public battle. I predict that by 2017 one or two national museums or galleries will win the war – either by having their cuts reversed or by introducing admission charges, causing the manifesto promise to break. Alternatively, a London-based national could close a regional branch.

Last time cuts were in the air, the Science Museum loudly threatened to shut the National Media Museum in Bradford. Intriguingly, soon after that threat was averted, it took on responsibility for the financially troubled Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, perhaps to get into Chancellor Osborne’s good books.

Central government cuts will also hit the major regional museums (and theatres, orchestras and festivals) regularly funded by Arts Council England (ACE). They’ve been awarded funding for three years, until 2017/18. This comes with an ACE caveat which, in essence, states that “if government cuts us, we’ll cut you”.

Many major regional museums still get most of their money from local government. In England, local government is highly volatile. A museum can be the local council’s favourite service one month and find itself abandoned the next. Newcastle City Council cut its museum funding by 50%, Birmingham Museums Trust is financially on its knees and Derby Museums are delighted that their 26% cut is being phased over two years rather than imposed in one fell swoop, as originally proposed.

Imbalance favours London

The collapse in support for many major civic museums is leading to fractures between them and the London nationals. Recent research confirmed the imbalance of central-government and lottery funding between London and elsewh ere. There are several ways of analysing the numbers, but by any measure culture spending per head is at least ten times greater in the capital than in England at large. As money gets tighter, regional directors start to think some of London’s riches should be spread more widely. They will get a sympathetic hearing from new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale. Until the election he was chair of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee of backbench MPs who scrutinise government. Late last year the committee concluded there needs to be “greater urgency” to correct

the “clear funding imbalance in favour of London”.

Many local authorities are outsourcing management of their museums to specially created charitable trusts. Local government cuts are so great in some areas, particularly the urban north, that it will be impossible to maintain long-term funding to them. In tourist areas these relatively new  “trust museums” may cope. York Museums Trust now describes itself as a “cultural business” rather than a cultural service, and is introducing admission charges at York Art Gallery when it reopens in the summer following an £8m development partly funded by ACE. Away from tourism honeypots, things will be tough and I predict that by 2018 a major museum trust will go bust. Who knows what that will mean for the future of the collection?

University museums benefit

Some directors, however, may have breathed a secret sigh of relief at the election result. Museums and galleries run by universities have done rather well since undergraduates have had to pay tuition fees of £9,000 a year. Those fees would have been reduced if Labour had won the election. Now, there’s little prospect of substantial cuts at the Ashmolean, the Fitzwilliam, the Barber Institute or the Whitworth Art Gallery in the government’s beloved Manchester. In Middlesbrough, the local university has even taken over the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art from the council.

Other newish contemporary art galleries aren’t too worried about money, either. Over the past decade, ACE has invested capital in an impressive network, from Turner Contemporary in Margate, through Nottingham Contemporary to the Hepworth in Wakefield. It is now honour-bound to keep funding them, so they are somewhat protected, with their cuts typically limited to around 5% for 2015-18. Baltic in Gateshead even got a 1% increase.

One exception is the struggling Firstsite art gallery, Rafael Vinoly’s much-delayed golden banana in Colchester. ACE has put it in special measures and if it fails to improve could withdraw funding, as it was forced to do from Will Alsop’s lame Public in West Bromwich.

Local relations between long-established civic museums and the new contemporary art galleries have sometimes been strained and the growing funding imbalance between them will heighten the tension.

These, then, are my sorry predictions for the years ahead. National museums threatening admission charges and closing branches; a local government museum trust going bust; and fractured relationships all round: between national museums and government, between London museums and the rest of the country, and between older museums and upstart contemporary galleries.

All this conflict, thanks to a government that champions the idea of One Nation.

Maurice Davies is a partner in the Museum Consultancy and a senior research fellow at King’s College London