spiked proposals: Museums and galleries

Drop the non-artistic utilitarian criteria; invest in collections; value and trust curators' expertise; value and trust the audience.

Tiffany Jenkins

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Topics Politics

The spirit of the arts should be to create quality and excellence and show it to the world. The following changes could help make that happen:

  • 1) Drop the non-artistic utilitarian criteria

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport attempts to use culture as the solution to a social exclusion, low self-esteem and urban deprivation. Both the Labour Party manifesto and the government’s green paper on culture (1) discuss culture in the most soulless and instrumental way, through highlighting its contribution to the economy.

Politicians should stop trying to hijack the arts and stop using them as a political tool. Drop the non-artistic criteria; and free the arts from the impossible quest to solve the social problems that politicians have failed to solve.

  • 2) Invest in collections

The soul of the museum lies in its artefacts, just as the focus of an art gallery is the works of art it displays. The current obsession with audience research, gimmicks and marketing focuses the work of the museum or gallery away from their collections, with the consequence that the content suffers. If museums and galleries are to be publicly funded, the investment should be in the collection and in scholarship, rather than earmarked to support a broader social function.

  • 3) Value and trust curators’ expertise

The role of the curator today tends to be sidelined, whether shrinking the proportion of curators relative to education and marketing officers, or equating the curator and the audience as equal contributors to the ordering and understanding of the collection. The knowledge and judgement of the curator should be appreciated above all.

  • 4) Value and trust the audience

Poor quality work in the art world and TV is all too often blamed on the audience (often through discussions about ratings or attendance figures). Museums, galleries and policymakers should have greater confidence in the ability of people to understand and enjoy work that is not obvious, immediate or relevant.

(1) ‘Culture and Creativity: The Next Ten Years’, March 2001

What would you do for culture? Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery (London), Andrew Brighton, senior curator at Tate Modern, artist Antony Gormley, and cultural critic Michael Daley make their own suggestions.

  • Charles Saumarez Smith, director, National Portrait Gallery

I would like to see:

  1. A recognition on the part of the Treasury that new money is best spent by enhancing the capabilities and activities of existing institutions, rather than throwing it around like confetti on new projects.
  2. Salvation for the major regional museums, by extending the system of national funding to a small number of big city museums.
  3. Support for smaller museums and arts institutions, by establishing an effective system of state-funded endowments.
  • Andrew Brighton, senior curator, Tate Modern (speaking in a personal capacity)

If I ruled the world, I would like to see:

  1. The abolition of the Arts Council and the British Film Institute, and their replacement by two endowed bodies: one concerned with the performing arts (theatre, music, etc) and one with the visual arts, including film and the national museums of art. The endowment should be sufficient at least to match the present grant to the institutions they replace and absorb. While the primary remit of these bodies would be to supplement, enrich and critique culture supported by the market, they would be required to increase the income of the sector. Their financial reporting would be on a triennial cycle.
  2. These bodies would fund institutions throughout the country. In the case of the visual arts and film, the range of responsibilities now carried out by the Regional Arts Boards would be contracted to institutions strategically distributed around the country. In other words, they would be working beyond the walls of the institution.

Most would be existing, such as the Ikon Gallery, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, Tate Liverpool, etc, but in certain areas they would have to be created. Responsibility for the visual arts and film in the area covered by each institution would rest with the director of these institutions and her or his board of directors. The contracts would be subject to triennial review.

  • Antony Gormley, artist

I would like to see:

  1. Recognition of the central role the arts play in helping make the world, and therefore a twofold increase in the present arts funding.
  2. The creation of permanent regional collections of contemporary art in cities – for example, Manchester, Bristol and Newcastle.
  3. An insistence that the Department for Education and Employment make firsthand experience of art, as a consumer and producer, a basic educational right, and that it provides the means to do so.
  • Michael Daley, director, Artwatch UK

I would:

  1. Scrap the Arts Council and all of its off-shoots. Use the money saved to give tax breaks to patrons who wish to spend their own money according to their own tastes, thereby drawing in more funding for the arts and avoiding the imposition by salaried apparatchiks of – as at present – an official state taste.
  2. Persuade the government to abolish state-funded art schools. Use the money saved to give tax breaks to new art schools as they re-emerge with students who are prepared to pay for the acquisition of real, socially and professionally useful skills from properly skilled practitioners.
  3. Return museums and galleries to the staffing levels of circa 1975. Scrap all museum restaurants and shops so that the institutions can return to their proper functions rather than being, as at present, themed backdrops to catering and retailing facilities.
  4. Use the very considerable sums of money saved to guarantee free entry, to fund acquisitions, and to support bona fide scholarship and artistic study of the collections. Abolish, in the course of the slim-down, all ‘education’, ‘information’, ‘administration’, and ‘conservation’ departments. Retrain the staffs of the latter for wider employment in the removal of graffiti from buildings, transport systems, and public spaces.

Tiffany Jenkins is arts and society director at the Institute of Ideas

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