Impoverished aims

The problem is not regional museums' lack of money, but what they are spending it on.

Munira Mirza

Topics Politics

The appeal by British artists including David Hockney, Peter Blake and Rachel Whiteread to increase government funding for local museums and galleries, has brought attention to the problems faced by these institutions. The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, Re:source, has estimated that £267million is needed to secure their future.

Supporting regional museums has always been something of a headache in the UK. For decades, these lower profile institutions have suffered underfunding, which has affected their ability not only to build new capital projects but also to preserve their existing collections and develop new and innovative exhibitions.

But today, funding for the arts and culture has never looked so good. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced an extra £100million funding for museums and galleries between 1999 and 2002. In March 2001, the Arts Council announced a 17 percent rise in its grants programme for the next three years, the largest increase in decades.

Since the 1990s, both Conservative and New Labour governments have shown their willingness to fund cultural institutions, unlike their Thatcherite predecessors who were forever devising cuts and ingenious ways to improve cost-efficiency at the expense of new activity. Recently, large sums of money have been poured into the Tate Modern in Southwark, London, the Baltic Flour Mills in Gateshead, the Lowry Centre in Salford, and a range of other cultural monuments across the country.

But this new funding has come at a price.

It was partly in response to the Thatcherite attack on arts funding during the 1980s that state cultural bodies began to promote museums and galleries as a tool for new political and social ends. Fending off accusations that the arts were frivolous, organisations like the Arts Council emphasised and supported the social ends of culture. Art was not an end in itself, but a means to an end. In the 1970s, volunteer groups initiated the majority of socially oriented arts activity, but by the 1980s many of the new developments were led by state bodies (1).

Today, this utilitarian attitude towards art and culture has become embedded. The role of cultural institutions as storehouses of objects of historical or artistic interest is being displaced by new responsibilities to tackle a range of social and urban problems. These new, diverse responsibilities range from educating children about teenage pregnancy to telling the history of local ethnic minority communities to make them feel more included in society. As Re:source enthuses about the value of museums and galleries: ‘They provide rich opportunities for learning; they promote social inclusion; they inspire and foster creativity; and they contribute to economic and social regeneration.’ (2)

While new cash sums for galleries and museums are welcomed by everyone, the content and quality of their work is rarely debated. That prickly question of ‘whether it’s any good’ is underplayed, and instead the social and regenerative quality of cultural institutions is emphasised.

Museums and galleries today are expected chart the demographic statistics of their visitors, and devise new community inclusion and educational outreach schemes on their already overstretched budgets. The new funding that is sought is less intended to improve the ‘traditional’ activities of museums or galleries, than to allow them ‘for the first time [to] achieve their potential as agents of social change’ (3). It is this supposed power of galleries and museums to change society that generates the most excitement from government ministers and helps loosen their purse-strings.

In some ways, it seems unfair to blame the cultural institutions themselves. The ‘arms-length principle’ of state funding bodies has always been imperfect – the financial survival of many museums and galleries means that their work is inevitably tied to new state policy. This relationship can silence criticism, both in the regions and in the metropolis. One commercial director of a large museum in London recently told me that they consciously devise exhibitions that ‘get bums on seats’ in order to meet government targets for admissions. However, this director also admitted that some museums liked the social goals set out for them because it offered a direction and purpose.

Museum director Marc Pachter and cultural consultant Charles Landry enthusiastically advise in their book, Culture at the Crossroads, that cultural institutions should assume a new role in playing ‘a central part in the emerging social and economic landscape’.

The greatest problems facing our museums and galleries lie not in their finances but in their confidence. Cultural institutions today are reluctant to play towards their strengths – to trumpet their collections and their curatorial expertise. Both the political left and right have done their best to undermine these roles, both in the name of social inclusion and customer-centredness. Leadership in cultural institutions has been weakened by a constant deferral to the audience, marketing or PR experts, and government. Now, they are vulnerable to the slightest charge of elitism and quick to embrace the role of social worker.

It is much easier to campaign for greater funding for cultural institutions than to argue against the new social expectations. Our arts administrators and curators may not feel they have the confidence or independence to debate these matters. But artists and the visiting public can.

Read on:

Distorted priorities are destroying local museums, Josie Appleton, Independent, 29 May 2002

Culture at the crossroads, by Munira Mirza

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) Arts & Cultures, Andrew Sinclair (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995), p202

(2) Renaissance in the Regions: A new vision for England’s museums, Re:source

(3) Q & As on Renaissance in the Regions, the report of the Regional Museums Task Force, Re:source

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Topics Politics


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