Funding of the arts and heritage

Written evidence submitted by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) (arts 63)


The impact of central Government cuts combined with those of local government threatens long term and lasting damage to a cultural heritage that is central to Britain’s national identity. Cuts made in response to the current crisis will have long term consequences for museums and more widely an arts and heritage sector which is the basis of the UK’s creative and knowledge based economies. Cuts made now risk destroying a delicate funding ecology and undermining achievements made by the museums sector over the last decade. Whilst recognising the need for financial stringency, wholesale changes could result in unintended long term effects and severely restrict Government’s strategic reach across the sector. Through partnerships with museums and other cultural organisations, Government funding can have disproportionately large economic and social impact s, directly benefiting the quality of ordinary people’s lives and in difficult times acting as a key contributor to community resilience.

Headlines in this submission are:

1. The distributed nature of our national heritage

2. National and local government partnerships: shared responsibility for a shared heritage

3. Fostering regional relationships

4. Making strategy real: maintaining Governments ability to influence the sector

5. Investment in culture delivers high impact ‘returns’

6. A reality check on philanthropy

1. A distributed national heritage

The 2001 Renaissance in the Regions report set out a powerful new vision for England’s Museums and embodied important principles which remain critical to the discussion of future structures and funding. These were that:

· a programme should have national ‘reach’

· it recognised that local authorities alone should not be solely responsible for cultural assets that were part of a shared collective heritage or distributed national collection. Government too, would have a legitimate responsibility in supporting these collections to deliver the widest public benefit.

· larger regional museums with nationally important collections (and their ‘parent’ local authorities) were providing to audiences well beyond their Council Tax funding base

· the huge potential for museums and their collections to contribute to many areas of public life: education, learning, social inclusion, community identity, creativity, economic development.

2. Shared responsibility for a shared heritage

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery was a classic example of the type of institution defined in the Renaissance report as a hub museum. Effectively operating as the County Museum, RAMM was entirely funded by Exeter City Council, a district council with a Council Tax base of 120,000. Museum visitor numbers were 250,000 per annum in 2006 (just before its closure for redevelopment) and audience analysis showed that they came from right across the region and well beyond. Through its museum, the district council had and has responsibility for cultural assets of national significance and a service of events and activities enjoyed by audiences well beyond Exeter. Though Devon residents look to RAMM as the most significant museum in the region, its hosting at district level was effectively an ‘accident of fate’. The county authority itself runs no museums and in this area of cultural delivery receives significant support from RAMM. The inequality of this situation was addressed by the Renaissance programme which acknowledged for the first time that patterns of cultural provision and consumption did not necessarily match government administrative boundaries.

3. Fostering regional relationships

With Renaissance funding behind it, RAMM was able to build its staffing capacity to support its county role. For example as a district council service, educational activities had been minimal but with Renaissance funding the museum has secured a Sandford Award for Heritage Education, a Learning Outside The Classroom Quality Badge and has been twice shortlisted twice for the Guardian’s Family Friendly Prize. Audiences have grown: there has been a 31% increase in numbers since the start of Renaissance and the Museum has developed strong relationships with the sub regional sector, with formal agreements in place with two neighbouring local authorities to provide pastoral care of community and voluntary run museum in their area.

4. Making strategy real: maintaining Government’s ability to influence the sector

The sub regional relationships established through Renaissance created a network that linked the sector in England. This has been particularly important during a period that has seen an increasing centralisation of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the bodies that preceded it. With the loss of the MLA, and most probably the hub network, fragmentation of the sector is a real risk and the ability of Government to translate cultural strategy into delivery at a grass roots level will be severely curtailed. This loss of ‘reach’ is a real concern when museums are so often a focus of community identity, the shared values and sense of society that is central to Government policy.

This is a particularly pertinent issue in rural areas where limited access to cultural services gives museums like RAMM a much higher profile and local significance than might be expected in urban areas offering more cultural choices. Proposals which see the loss of a national network risks creating a few cultural ‘hot spots’ across England and many cool spots where the public access to equivalent services will be hugely diminished. With the hot spots located in the ‘usual places’ many people will be culturally disenfranchised by the loss of locally accessible provision.

5. Investment in culture deliveries high impact returns

Renaissance has been enormously successful, touching the lives of countless people, transforming their perception of and engagement with museums. A new generation of visitors has begun to understand the power of collections to spark thought; inspire creativity, create shared experiences and a sense of belonging. Important at the best of times, their significance is magnified when communities are facing huge challenges as a result of a difficult economic climate. Museums have a huge amount to contribute to ‘community resilience’ at a time when everyone’s horizons and choices seem narrowed by organisations’ and personal exigencies.

Through Renaissance museums have demonstrated that investment delivers big impacts and as such represents very good value for money. Visitor numbers at this museum are up 31% since the start of Renaissance; 98,000 children have attended schools workshops, 35,000 families have enjoyed museum family resources. A key statistic shows that 53% of visiting family groups with school children were visiting RAMM because the children wanted to come back following their school trip (compared with 41% nationally). We are particularly proud of this figure because it represents the positive participation of a generation of young people in the cultural life of their community.

It is ironic that at the very moment public expectations have been raised, museums’ ability to meet these needs could be severely restricted. Through Renaissance RAMM has secured a whole series of awards relating to customer service; volunteering; education, and community engagement. The Museum has attracted significant external investment, embraced digital media and delivered innovative audience development initiatives. This public facing work is highly valued by users but with Renaissance and local authority budgets under threat there is a serious risk to all that has been achieved over the past eight years. Savings made in Government funding to arts and heritage will have a disproportionately large impact on quality of life for ordinary people and ordinary communities.

6. A reality check on philanthropy

Whilst understanding the value and entirely supportive of a mixed funding ecology, we believe from our regional perspective, that Government hopes for increased benefactor/philanthropist involvement in the arts and heritage is misplaced. In our predominantly rural region, sponsorship and endowments have always been illusive and in the present economic circumstances this is likely to become more difficult, not less. A whiff of desperation, questions around future sustainability and the promise of backfilling core posts fail (understandably) to attract external funders. It is for this reason that for many years some charitable grant giving trusts and foundations have been reluctant to receive applications from local authorities. They do not want to subsidise public services. Instead philanthropist’s interests tend to be around the more visible and exciting deliverables, the very things which could well be in short supply in the future.

The situation may well be different in metropolitan areas but for the regions especially rural areas such as our own, the recession has meant individual and corporate giving is scarce. Exeter’s business community is dominated by the services and government sectors both of which have been hit hard by the recession. Sadly reductions in local authority and central government budgets are unlikely to be mitigated by philanthropy. Perhaps this is an argument for special and differentiated support to hard pressed rural regions?

Museums recognise their need to become more entrepreneurial and to identify alternative income streams but to do this they need stable, not project or initiative based core funding for their essential services. It is on these services that other activities whether publicly or privately funded rest. However the depth of proposed cuts is putting these core activities at risk. This is not a matter of selling the family silver; it involves losing the table on which it sits. With philanthropists and sponsors wary of funding core costs, museums have little alternative but to look to the public purse and a shared government responsibility for a shared national heritage.

Losing the principle of shared responsibility for a nationally distributed heritage, combined with simultaneous central and local government cuts to arts and heritage provision, risks creating long term and lasting damage to a cultural life that is part of Britain’s national identity. For this reason we welcome the opportunity to make this submission to the Committee.

September 20 10