November 14, 2003

A funding crisis for museums?

Posted at 8:38 am in British Museum, Similar cases

Museums are facing another funding crisis – but let us not forget that there are many (easily rectified) factors that contribute to their lack of funds.

Firstly, there is the fact that in many cases they have far more artefacts than they can ever display, but are not allowed to dispose of them – so must pay for the storage, maintenance & security for them.

Next though, is the fact that while some of the artefacts in their collections are disputed, other countries have offered loans of new high profile pieces if they are returned. People do not come back to museums to see the same stuff that was there the previous time – they come to see new artefacts such as these. Furthermore, temporary exhibitions are often subject to an admission charge, whilst the rest of the museum is free admission.

Surely re-thinking such factors could help to close the funding gap?


Let’s not do the timewarp again
Without money to buy new pieces, our museums will become monuments to the tastes of our predecessors. Where could the funds come from?
Jane Morris
Friday November 14, 2003

Britain’s museum directors warn that we are heading for a crisis. Lack of money to buy new things means that museums and galleries, rather like Miss Haversham, will become frozen in time, monuments to the tastes of 19th- and early 20th-century collectors and curators, but not of those today.

The fact that galleries have been refurbished and extended – from the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing to the creation of Tate Modern – masks a stasis in the collections, they say, which damages our cultural life far more than the leaky roofs or dodgy lavatories lottery money has largely done away with.

Museums and galleries, it is true, have less in real terms for day-to-day things than they did 20 years ago. Years of grant cuts during the Thatcher years have meant that the British Museum, for example, lost almost a third of its grant in the past decade. The Labour government has been slightly more generous – but extra funds have been targeted on its priority areas: schoolchildren, education and IT.

Buying new objects has been low on the list: in 1982, the top five fine and decorative art museums (National Gallery, Tate, British Museum, National Portrait Gallery and V&A) had almost £8m allocated for purchase. Last year the figure was less than £1m.

But now the National Gallery and the Tate are orchestrating high-profile campaigns to buy a very expensive work each, using non-governmental funds. The National hopes to acquire the Duke of Northumberland’s Raphael, the Madonna of the Pinks, for £21m, while the Tate is trying to secure Reynolds’ £12.5m Portrait of Omai.

These acquisitions will only be possible thanks to a combination of private donations, charity and the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has allocated £140m to acquisitions since 1995. Both works have been prevented from leaving the country by the export stop system, under which an expert committee temporarily bars the export of nationally significant works to allow museums time to raise the money to buy them.

If both these purchases are successful, it might suggest that the “crisis” is exaggerated. But according to the National Art Collection Fund, which has raised over £42.5m from the public to buy artworks, the situation is worse than it appears.

There were 31 works, with a value of £19m, under export stop, of which £3m worth was retained. Even the panel deciding which works are important enough to be temporarily barred has admitted its activities are somewhat questionable if museums have little money to buy. And these works represent a fraction of the pieces museums might wish to purchase.

The export stop system exists to save exceptional works for the nation from big American museums like the Getty. In practice, this tends to mean Old Masters from stately homes. But museums with a contemporary remit naturally want to collect 20th- and 21st-century work. Indeed, many curators argue that the emphasis on saving Old Masters has skewed what museum purchasing there is, towards the grand and historic at the expense of a more rational, and planned.

The problem is that the art market has gone wild – and any gaps, even new ones, are hard to fill in collections.

In the war and immediate post-war era the Tate largely focused its collecting on British art. It is now unlikely that it will ever make up for its lack of German expressionist art, for example, or get over the fact that in 1946, when it had a collecting budget of £2,000 per year, it failed to buy Matisse’s Red Studio for less than £1,000. Since then, it has largely made up for past mistakes – for example buying Carl Andre’s bricks, in the face of much criticism, for £2,267 in the 70s.

But just as the Old Master market has spiralled out of control, so has the contemporary market. American buyers have always been willing to spend a lot – but new, rich markets are opening up, in Asia for example, as art acquires greater status. (At this week’s Art Fund conference on collecting, the historian David Starkey likened the current art market to the medieval trade in relics – the bigger and more powerful you are, the more you want it and the more you will pay.)

Now, artists can move from the post-college £5,000 bracket to £50,000 in three or four years. So galleries have to move fast and buy artists young, and risk making mistakes which they will have to pay for – by taking up space in stores and conserving works they may have preferred not to have bought. Due to their code of ethics, museums, unlike private collectors, cannot simply sell on works they’ve grown tired of.

The situation seems intractable, but in reality it is not. Although museums will continue to press for additional government cash, most do not expect much to be forthcoming. The emphasis is shifting, as it started to in the 1980s, to the role of the private sector – and in particular individual donors and collectors.

There are some hopes for the current Treasury review into tax breaks and collecting – the US has shown that the tax system is the most effective way for museums to build endowments and encourage donations of expensive artworks. The US allows owners to pay a variety of tax bills by giving art instead of cash, letting them effectively “choose” how their tax dollar is spent – by supporting galleries.

But the challenge for British museums is not only to attract these donors – the British equivalents of the Annenbergs and the Lauders – but to make sure that their interests do not serve to add another set of distortions to our national collections. Swapping a Victorian timewarp for another, created by the likes of Charles Saatchi, is not supposed to be the plan at all.

Jane Morris is the editor of Museums Journal

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