Love in a cold climate

AI reported on the swingeing cuts Birmingham was proposing to make to its arts budget, and now comes the story that public pressure has made the council row back on its proposal to cut £750,000 from the Birmingham Museums Trust’s grant, part of the £78m cost reduction package. It’s also changed its mind about closing two libraries. But they’ll still be putting the council tax up 5%.

Other councils are still binding their museums and galleries in red tape and a blind cuts regime – Southampton City Art Gallery is being forced to shut early at 3pm every day to save on security costs without any thought to the consequent impression on the public – you turn up at 4pm, it’s shut, you don’t bother again.
The hammer local authorities are under is unprecedented, and to be forced to make a choice between day care centres and art galleries is invidious. Some are choosing not to, and in the spirit of fair misery for all to keep faith with their community culture and allow the collections at least to survive. Nevertheless, 50 museums are probably going to close this year.
The Birmingham story is encouraging, however, first because the council has listened and secondly because it agrees that culture is important. That last is particularly significant.
The Lightbox in Woking was an unlikely newcomer to Surrey’s cultural landscape, few gave it much chance of survival. Ten years later it has not only survived but it has prospered – it hoped for 50,000 visits a year, it’s getting 100,000 - and its director puts it down partly to the borough’s sustained belief. Even so, Woking’s contribution to keeping the place going hasn’t changed in that decade - it has effectively gone down by 40% with inflation - but it is not going away.
The other reason for the Lightbox’s triumph is the acceptance of the grim reality that we are in an age of fundraising, and it is a perpetual activity. The director, Marilyn Scott, reckons that 75% of her time is spent schmoozing in one way or another, and there is virtually none of the philanthropy or business sponsorship even in Surrey that’s available in London. Her museum is a charitable trust, a model in which the institution is freed from local authority strings and gets a sometimes nominal support grant but with it the stamp of approval that helps them when they look elsewhere for the money they need, an invaluable love token. Yet some councils are reluctant to let their cultural institutions float away like that. There needs to be much more conversation between museum directors, councillors and council officers to make this scary new model work.
Meanwhile, news from the Government Art Collection following my story last week about its loan of the Epstein Churchill to the White House. I slipped in a sotto voce moan about the lack of access the general public has to the 13,500 works of British art it holds, because the stuff is meant for government offices and doesn’t have a gallery to show it. It’s going to have one now, it seems. The DCMS has announced plans to open a “display space that everyone will be able to enjoy” for the GAC at a location yet to be identified. My money is on the reburgeoning Ally Pally (see AI 334).


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