TAITMAIL Leicester supports its culture by sacking its curators
It is not so much ironic as poignant, that the point at which a charity, the John Ellerman Foundation, recognises the growing crisis among museum curators and intervenes is swiftly followed by a local authority getting rid of all its curators.
Leicester City Council has chosen tourism for its dwindling grants budget over collection care. It had been coming, but it sits badly in a city that has been trying to re-invent itself through culture, and for which the discovery of a medieval king buried under a car park came as a stunning reminder of its heritage.
Leicester has four museums, but the jewel is New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, one of the oldest museums in the country, famous for its dinosaurs, its Arts & Crafts furniture and a unique collection of German Expressionist art. It attracts a quarter of a million visitors a year. When AI visited early in 2015 its future was already in the balance, looking dolefully towards promised cuts of between 33% to 80%. “So we have to prepare the place for a time when we might not be here” said its managing curator Matthew Constantine then. He is not one of the curators being off-loaded, he left for the National Trust 18 months ago.
Constantine saw the job of the curator as key to the modern museological holy grail of getting communities to identify with their museum’s collections. “Our role” he said then “is to develop the museum’s product and its services so that it will encourage people to get some local identity, to get a sense of Leicester”. In 2016 they put forward a masterplan for Heritage Lottery Fund support that would do that, with the backing of the elected mayor Peter Soulsby. HLF turned it down, partly because there was not enough partnership funding coming from the local authority. Sir Peter has been strangely silent since the curators were shown the door.
In the face of a deficit of £320,000 Leicester has decided after a review not to close its main museum but to replace its four remaining experts with “an audience development and engagement team” of seven, what the V&A’s director Tristram Hunt described as a “shocking” decision. The four curators were asked to apply to join the new team, none of them was appointed.
Perhaps if it had known about the John Ellerman Foundation Leicester would have decided differently. “We’re looking at the need for the service to modernise and be much more user-focused. The service hasn’t had such a review for a number of years so while savings had to be made, it wasn’t about that. The council is very supportive of culture” said the city’s head of arts and museums, Jo Jones. “We’re looking at the need for service to modernise and be more user-focused”.
It’s the latest, and most graphic, incident in a long story of local authority austerity cuts. Over the last five years, says the Museums Association, spending on culture in England and Wales has fallen by more than 30% which has impacted heavily on museums services. The Ellerman has been watching it happen and has now broken the unwritten rule for artists and foundations and stepped in to provide core funding to ensure that curatorial posts are not lost.
“It used to be that core funding came from the relevant statutory body, but that’s been completely turned on its head” the Ellerman’s director Nicola Pollock told AI only last week. “We have respect for the people we fund, a desire to give core funding that gets to the heart of what they do, we don't set out clear programmatic outcomes.
“The focus on curatorial skills had been neglected, posts lost, people thinking it wasn’t important, so it was consistent with our wish to fund the costs of things we believe in”. Ms Jones, who believes in culture, can find the link to the John Ellerman Foundation right here: https://ellerman.org.uk/apply-for-funding/what-we-fund.