The slow death of regional museums in Europe

In the face of radically reduced state support, museums must embrace a new model of funding for the future

While headlines continue to focus on the glamorous side of the art world, from blockbuster shows to beautiful people outbidding each other for trophy works, such reporting has eclipsed one essential issue that affects all of us and deserves our attention: the slow death of regional museums throughout Europe.

Curators anticipated that the 21st century would be exciting and challenging. The market has been rapidly growing, and with it the number of collectors spurring each other on. But the reality that greeted them was radical cuts: in the Netherlands, for example, more than 20 cultural organisations lost all of their public funding and had to close their doors in 2013, since this was their only means of support. In Britain, meanwhile, government funding for the arts was cut from $702.8m in 2010-11 to $536m in 2014-15, a loss of 31%. Budgets distributed locally have also suffered severe cuts: for instance Somerset, in 2012, became the first county council in England to vote in favour of a 100% cut to its culture budget. Many regional museums have therefore been forced to think creatively in order to fill growing funding gaps and look to a range of commercial events – from corporate hire to weddings – to provide critical income.

With a variety of challenges facing European governments to generate growth in the current global economy, the model of the public museum is unfortunately not always seen as being sustainable. One could even argue that the concept of the publicly funded museum was a European utopian concept of the 20th century. This radical change is creating a significant divide between leading institutions with compelling “brand names” such as Tate or Serpentine in London, and smaller, more vulnerable, regional institutions. While the former have been consolidating and expanding partnerships with private supporters, in most cases the latter are struggling to secure private funding, sometimes resulting in a drop in exhibition quality or lack of a clear future programme.

Why has it become increasingly difficult for regional art institutions to convince local communities of the essential role that museums and culture play within our society? And what is at stake when art and culture become concentrated in capital cities? In Britain, we face the prospect of a gap in wealth and culture that could effectively divide the country. It is therefore crucial for governments and taxpayers to avoid cultural ‘desertification’ and to understand the role that museums play in disseminating knowledge and culture, as well as to engage with cultural policies on both national and regional scales.

Regional museums will have to transform themselves and think very differently; they will still need to apply for funding but, rather than pitching for the entire amount to public organisations and funding bodies, they’ll also have to get closer to the private sector, from wealthy collectors and individuals, to local, national and international corporations. In the future, moreover, such institutions will have to reconsider what defines leadership in their field: is a museum director someone who can fundraise better than anyone else, or someone with the ability to “collect” collectors? Is it someone detached from the market, focusing on research to pinpoint what matters most in historic terms? If you ask me today, I will answer you: ‘all of the above’.

An initiative of the art consultancy firm Montabonel & Partners, Mark Doyle and Museums Sheffield, Going Public was conceived as a platform to foster debate about the future of public and private collections. A one-day summit will bring together leading international figures of the art world (from collectors to museums directors, gallery owners, politicians and thinkers) to discuss what can be done to bridge the divide between national and regional institutions, as well as the role private collectors can play in building a new model for the museums of the 21st century.

“If you look back to the 19th and early 20th century, major philanthropists were very much involved in the city politics as well as in its development and economical growth of the city of Sheffield,” says Kim Streets, chief executive of Museums Sheffield. “ Some considerable donations were made to the city; there was a strong collaboration between public and private. Throughout the 20th century, such relationships began to dissipate and, as the state stepped up after the Second World War, the need for public and private collaboration seemed to lessen.”

In some parts of the world, private collectors take their role very seriously and recognise their responsibility to the public and artists. The Fisher family in San Francisco and Egidio Marzona in Germany are key examples. Others unfortunately put their own interests ahead of the institutions’. Collectors and philanthropists' roles are vital in this process and in the longer term. The ability of museum directors and curators to share their knowledge and expertise makes the dialogue with institutions beneficial not only from an economic point of view, but also from a creative one. Europe is slowly moving towards the American model, especially where powerful boards of trustees are able to influence decisions.

Some proactive regional museums have already been working to address the challenge but a greater dialogue between the public and private domain is urgently needed to foster new, sustainable models of collaboration and enable practical, productive interaction between these two parallel art worlds. But it needs to be done on a more frequent basis and much larger scale. Often, a third party is needed to bridge the gap between these two worlds, to ensure a balanced and effective collaboration.

Ultimately, the balance between public and private domains is under threat and the art world’s ecosystem requires both to be healthy. We all believe that is possible, and the Artist Rooms project, a collection of international contemporary art acquired for the nation by National Galleries of Scotland and Tate through the generosity of Anthony d’Offay, is an outstanding example of what can be achieved when a public institution and a private collector work in partnership.