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Local museums 'easy targets' for cuts

The predicament facing public museums and galleries as a result of government cuts is rousing angry feelings, aimed at local MPs and the ConDem coalition alike.

Local museums especially have become “easy targets” says Mark Taylor, Museums Association director. A report for the MA, based on responses from 114 museums across the UK, found that 22% had reduced public access and 49% increased prices for school visits.

Many outreach programmes are grinding to a halt. At least 10 smaller museums have already shut down around the country. This year alone has seen the closure of the Malton Museum in Ryedale, the Museum of Nottingham Life and the Church Farmhouse museum in Hendon. Others like the Tolsen Museum in West Yorkshire will be closed for several days a week.

The political class is not much bothered by the destruction of cultural life at local level. For example, Withington LibDem MP John Leech says that Manchester’s famous art gallery should sell off some of its 12,500 “hidden gems” to offset the impact of cuts.

In fact it would be illegal for the council to do this, but the strength of feeling over the issue is emblematic of the dilemma faced by museums and galleries around the country. Enraged local people responded in kind on the Manchester Evening News website.

“The Dodger, Yorks Manc” poked fun at Leech as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. How much does he want for his Granny?”

Ray Media opined: “I wholeheartedly agree [with selling artworks].... I’m sure the city philanthropists who funded the collection would have wanted these works to be sold off so the council could squander the proceeds...”

Rob Lee responded to gangledorn of Bolton’s suggestion that “they will probably only be brought [sic] by the police....”, writing:

 “Yes, Greater Manchester Police are movers and shakers in the art market of course. They spent £100k on an art work for their new £64 mil headquarters in Newton Heath. £65k on a mural to hang in the staff entrance. It’s tough when your budgets are cut, but you have to get your priorities right. A few could be hung in the £1.2mil plus dog kennels that are being created for the 8 Border Force sniffer dogs at Manchester Airport. A bit of added luxury in their new pad.”

Probably the only positive thing that happened under New Labour’s rule was the abolition of museum charges in government-sponsored museums in January 2001. In pure numbers the success was astounding: visitor numbers shot up from seven to almost 18 million in ten years. Heritage Lottery Fund (aka public money) spending saw a golden era of arts venue building in culturally-deprived parts of the country such as Newcastle and Middlesbrough.

While admission charges for standing collections were abolished, arts institutions made up their loss of revenue in other ways. Special exhibitions are never free. Standard ticket prices for the Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst and the British Museum’s forthcoming Shakespeare shows are £14, for example.

The top venues claw back money by staging high profile blockbusters, but this is difficult if not impossible for more modest regional venues. That’s why the cuts aimed at smaller museums and galleries are proving so devastating.

But fear not, there is money out there for art and culture. When it comes to making a macho, business statement, like Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower for the London Olympics. London taxpayers have coughed up £3 million of the £22.7 million cost. And if you want to go up in the tower, that’ll be another £15 a head.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
9 July 2012

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