Response to the Goodison Review: Saving Art for the Nation

Tax reforms to encourage people to sell important works of art to UK museums will not be enough to ensure better collections, according to the Museums Association (MA). In its response to the Treasury consultation, Saving Art for the Nation, the MA points out that many museums' acquisitions are constrained because of a lack of the curatorial expertise needed to support active collecting
1. Background

1.1 The Museums Association (MA) is an independent membership organisation representing museums and galleries in the UK and people who work for them. The Association has over 4,500 individual members and 600 institutional members. These institutional members encompass around 1500 museums in the UK ranging from the largest government-funded national museums to small volunteer-run charitable trust museums. Formed in 1889, it is a registered charity, receiving no government funding, which seeks to inform, represent and develop museums and people who work for them in order that they may provide a better service to society and the public.

1.2 The MA's focus is not academic or curatorial. We do not have specialist expertise relating to acquisitions; however, we are well placed to give an overview of the broader issues, which provide the context for this review. We should very much welcome the opportunity to discuss these comments in more depth.

1.3 At the start of the review process, the MA urged the review team to talk to a number of key figures in regional museums in order to gain a rounded understanding of issues relating to acquisitions. We believed that this was particularly important if the review were to address issues relating to public access to acquisitions, as well as the concerns of regional museums. We were pleased that the review team took up this suggestion and we were happy to help facilitate this process.

We want to underline our view that the review should address problems associated with acquisitions in all kinds of museum collections and all kinds of museums. Active collecting is crucial to the health of museums, with the exception of a very few with purposely closed collections.

In the long term, it will be just as damaging for museum users if local museums are not able to acquire relevant archaeology and social history, as if the National Gallery is not able to acquire great paintings. We believe that the review should be concerned with 'works of art and culture' (to quote the Chancellor's Budget Statement), in the broadest sense. Steam engines should be as much within its scope as Cézannes.

1.4 We welcome the fact that this review includes funding as well as taxation. The two cannot be separated: for museums to take advantage of schemes such as acceptance in lieu, they frequently need to be able to mobilise additional funding. We believe the problem requires a combined solution, with changes to both the tax and funding arrangements. There are also significant structural and cultural factors, which inhibit the ability of museums to collect and these must also be taken into account.

2. Comments on the Review questions

Question 1: Do you have any comments on the present arrangements for funding from central and local government, and other public bodies, for acquisitions by museums and galleries of works of art and culture?

There is insufficient funding for acquisitions in both regional and national museums, illustrated by missed opportunities at both ends of the scale, from inexpensive archaeological items not acquired by small local museums, to hugely expensive fine art, which is out of the reach of major national museums and galleries. Clearly, museums will never be able to acquire every work of art or culture that they would ideally like for their collections.

However, we believe that museums are currently slipping dangerously near to the point where they are collecting so little that they are becoming etiolated. Museums are now missing out on acquisitions that are crucial to the strength and vitality of their collections, leaving the nation's cultural heritage seriously impoverished.

The problem is, of course, partly one of funding. Purchase funds are an easy target for cuts when museums have to make difficult choices in order to save money. Very little funding is now set aside for acquisitions from museums' core funding, even in national museums. Museum budgets have been squeezed in real terms in recent years: local authority museums in Yorkshire and the South West for example experienced a real terms decline in funding of between 16 and 20 per cent in the 1990s ; by 2000-1, the V&A's grant in aid was 19 per cent lower than in 1994-5 in real terms . Purchase funds have shrunk accordingly: the Tate's for example is now at the level of 20 years ago, with purchase prices considerably higher. The National Galleries of Scotland have recently announced that they need to redirect the money set aside for acquisitions to meet basic running costs.

Very few local authority museums have any dedicated purchase funds. Some have traditionally had a ring-fenced budget, separated from the local authority's mainstream finances, to use for acquisitions. Many of these appear to have been abolished over the last decade; we know that at least one of those that remain is under threat. The fortunate exceptions are a handful of museums such as the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull with endowments, which provide funding for acquisitions. Museum Friends organisations also often raise funds to support acquisitions although the amount of support they can provide is limited.

A lack of funding means that even modest purchases are often beyond the reach of regional museums. For example, under the terms of the Treasure Act 1996, registered museums have the right to buy objects found in their area which are declared to be treasure, at a price determined by the Treasure Valuation Committee. But many lack funds to do so.

In 2002, museums withdrew a stated interest in acquiring a total of thirteen treasure finds when they were valued, even though some were valued at as little as £250. A trust has now agreed to fund a programme to help regional museums acquire treasure finds and in future this will help to stop relatively low value objects being lost to museums. However, a handful of high-value objects are declared Treasure each year and funding for the acquisition of these objects will remain problematic.

There are, of course, a number of external sources of funding for museum acquisitions. However, all require at least some element of match funding from the institution and this frequently proves an insurmountable stumbling block. Raising funds from these sources is also time-consuming and museums may find themselves unable to raise funding when several potential acquisitions come up at the same time. One curator questioned in preparing this response commented that it was often as easy to raise £20,000 as £200 since all applications involve about the same amount of work.

As this observation suggests, museums are not just constrained from making acquisitions by a lack of funding. Many also lack sufficient staff with the skills and expertise they need to support an active programme of collecting. This more fundamental issue of capacity needs to be addressed if the situation is really to be improved. In order to sustain a healthy programme of collecting, museums need good enough records of their collection to allow curators to identify gaps.

They need specialist curators who have a detailed enough knowledge of a field to identify worthwhile acquisitions and time to pursue them. They need to have the capacity to care for the object and to carry out any conservation that might be required. They need to be able to run the kind of vibrant programmes of research and display which put their collections to good use: it is only worth museums acquiring objects if they can make use of it, and make it accessible to visitors.

In practice, many regional museums - and some nationals - are severely challenged in all these areas. The Renaissance in the Regions report identified a serious lack of capacity in regional museums and found that the basic infrastructure with which they deliver their services has been drastically eroded. The report included a startling comparison between the museum services in Bristol and Liverpool.

The two cities are similar in terms of their population size and social make-up and their museum services care for collections of comparable size and scope. But Liverpool museums have been directly funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport since the abolition of Merseyside County Council in 1986, whereas Bristol museum service has always been run by Bristol City Council. In 2001, Bristol museum service's budget was £2.2 million, Liverpool's £15 million. And Bristol employed only 8.5 specialist collections staff, Liverpool 129.

With so few subject specialists, museums cannot devote much time or energy to collecting. Without specialist curators, a museum cannot even begin to identify objects it needs to acquire. As a result, collecting tends to be passive and dealer-led: museums scramble for funding for objects once they have come on to the market. More funding and better tax incentives will not solve the problem of collecting in the regions without a renewal of their curatorial capacity.

The funding for Renaissance in the Regions will go some way to addressing this issue in some areas of England. Enhancing the care, management and conservation of collections, and developing the workforce are among the priorities identified for spending. It is vital that the government provide ongoing, long-term funding for Renaissance to enable this work to continue and to be expanded to cover the whole of England.

The expertise deficit in regional museums has taken some time to develop and is not a problem that can be redressed over night. Cultural change is required. Museum professionals have, in many cases, lost the confidence to undertake an active programme of collecting, as well as the practical skills. Governing bodies may also need to be convinced that collecting should once again become a core part of museums' activities.

The Designation Challenge Fund, channelled from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport via Resource has provided £20m over 5 years for regional museums in England with collections Designated as being of outstanding importance. The fund has been a vital source of money for collections-related projects such as documentation and storage. Both are essential for collecting. The long-term future of the DCF is uncertain. We believe it is vital for the future health of the most important regional museum collections that it continues to be funded at a reasonable level, with a continued emphasis on collections projects.

Can you suggest ways in which the efficiency and effectiveness of these arrangements might be improved?

As outlined above, we believe that strengthened curatorial infrastructure is an essential prerequisite for improving collecting practice in regional museums. We believe that changes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of funding and tax arrangements will only have impact if there are sufficient specialist curators in regional museums to implement them.

We also believe that museums should further the work underway to build up an understanding of what objects are held by what institutions across the country. As art prices rise, and as the sheer volume of contemporary material culture proliferates, the future of collecting must lie in collaboration. Museum professionals increasingly use the term 'distributed national collection' to express the idea that the national collection is not just held by the national museums, but is dispersed through every museum across the country.

Taken further, the idea of the distributed national collection could mean that museums draw much more freely in future on material held in other museums in the UK. A museum in Brighton, say, may then no longer feel that it has to acquire an example of a particular textile, if there is already an example in a museum in Bradford. Museums may also acquire collaboratively more often: we have already seen some examples of international collaborative acquisition of fine art, such as the joint purchase of Canova's Three Graces by the Victoria and Albert Museum, National Galleries of Scotland and the Prado in Madrid and of Bill Viola's Five Angels for the Millennium by Tate, the Whitney Museum, New York and the Pompidou in Paris.

It should be possible to encourage this kind of joint purchase by groups of UK museums, although this would require better access to information about the contents of every museum collection in the UK. Continued funding for the Designation Challenge Fund in England will help achieve this; Scotland and Wales need their own equivalent schemes. Resource and the national museums should also make it a priority to develop a comprehensive database of what is held by museums across the country. It is vital that everyone has easy access to information about the objects that already form part of the nation's heritage.

Resource should develop its strategic role with respect to museum collections more broadly: there may be other areas in which this kind of overview would be helpful. For example, it would help if there were a body which could keep a watching brief on all collections of art and culture, not just those held in museums and galleries.

When important private collections came on the market, it could help to co-ordinate museums' efforts to acquire them. Of course, individual museums need to define their own collecting policies, and retain the right to make final decisions about what they do and do not acquire. But the national collection should be much more than the sum of its parts and this depends on strengthening the relationships between institutions, fostering cooperation and sharing knowledge.

In terms of funding, we believe that the distinction between the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) must be made clearer. Given that NHMF has only had £5m a year to spend since the launch of the national lottery (and has much less for the next three years after intervening to save Tyntesfield), its designation as a fund of last resort has become meaningless. In offering grants to the National Gallery for the Madonna of the Pinks and to the National Galleries of Scotland for Venus Anadyomene, HLF has effectively acted in NHMF's stead as a fund of last resort.

We believe that NHMF funding must be restored to a more realistic level. Unless NHMF is given more financial muscle, HLF will continue to come under pressure to step into the breach, to prevent the loss of objects that are crucial to the UK's national heritage. This tends to distort HLF's priorities: the fund has been moving towards funding acquisitions only as part of a project which includes a clearly-defined programme to make the object accessible to the public; we also believe it is right that HLF should look at individual acquisitions in the context of a museum's long-term collecting policy. This more considered approach should distinguish its funding from that of the NHMF.

To encourage collecting in regional museums, HLF should also ensure that its regional committees take a consistently supportive approach to funding acquisitions. Some of our members have reported that the HLF committees in their regions appear to put a low priority on acquisitions. Since the HLF regional committees now agree all grants of up to £2m, decisions about the kind of acquisitions which regional museums typically seek to make are made at regional level. It is vital that regional committees do not close the door to applications for funding for acquisitions by regional museums.

We also believe that there is scope for providing public or lottery funding for some modest programmes of collecting by particular museums, rather than providing funding for individual objects, as is now the case. This would enable museums to take a broader overview of what objects would enhance their collections in the longer-term. It would also help curators to build their own expertise and to gain confidence in identifying and buying objects. Arts Council England has supported an initiative by the Contemporary Arts Society. The Special Collections Scheme has provided £3.5m for acquisitions by 15 regional museums over five years.

Each museum has £30,000 to spend each year, of which the museum contributes 25 per cent in partnership funding. The Contemporary Art Society acts as an advisor, helping the participating museums to plan their purchases. Crucially, some of the funding has been used to enable curators to spend time researching and developing their skills. This scheme comes to an end within the next twelve months and we believe that funding should be found to enable it to continue so that the momentum and skills which have been built up are not lost. A programme with similar funding for historic collections could act as a catalyst to help museums relaunch stalled collecting programmes.

Question 2: How far do the existing tax reliefs and exemptions provide effective and efficient incentives for the sale or donation of works of art and cultural property to museums and galleries?

The Museums Association does not have the specialist expertise or experience to comment in detail on how the tax reliefs and exemptions work in practice. However, it is undoubtedly the case that museums have successfully acquired many important objects through Acceptance in Lieu. We believe there is scope for the principle to be extended to other forms of tax liability, in addition to inheritance tax.

We believe that more work is required to assess the success of the Conditional Exemption scheme. We believe that it may have the potential to militate against the sale and donation of works of art and culture to museums. If owners can retain an object and have it remain exempt from capital gains tax, such objects are less likely to become available for acquisition by museums.

On the other hand, the scheme does ensure that objects are less likely to be sold out of the country. We believe that the Treasury should evaluate the impact of the scheme to assess whether its public benefit justifies its expense. It may be that, although objects exempt under the scheme have to be of museum quality, many would not be actively sought by museums were they to come on the market. With limited public access to objects in the scheme, the tax incentives might be better directed elsewhere.

Question 3: To what extent do the current funding arrangements and tax reliefs provide good value for money for the taxpayer?

Museums hold the collective memory of society. They acquire objects for the benefit of future generations as well as for their current users, and have a responsibility to collect the past and the present and to hand it on to the future. In this context, value for money is hard to define.

The National Gallery's spending on acquisitions has come under scrutiny recently because of its campaign to acquire the Madonna of the Pinks. But the gallery has literally hundreds of paintings in its collection, which would cost as much as the Raphael, or even more, if they were to come onto the market today: the gallery could not even begin to build up its collection from scratch at today's prices. Most of these paintings have been acquired with public money.

What does 'value for money' mean in this context? What may have seemed like a poor bargain to some taxpayers in the past seems like a very shrewd investment now. We believe that the Treasury has to bear this in mind when considering the value for money offered by spending on acquisitions.

Question 4: How can we ensure that cultural objects purchased by or loaned to museums and galleries are publicly accessible in the regions?

More public access in the regions to objects acquired with public funds means more acquisitions by regional museums as well as more mobility of objects acquired by the London-based nationals. The national museums have already started to take steps to make their collections more accessible in the regions. There is clearly scope to extend this work further.

For example, we believe that there should be a presumption in favour of loans from the national museums to the regions of objects acquired using funds from sources such as the Heritage Lottery Fund. But it is important that regional museums make their own acquisitions, as well as showing objects on loan from the nationals, and plan their own exhibitions, as well as receiving touring exhibitions from the national museums.

In practice, as already stated, few regional museums are able to run active collecting programmes. And few are able to run temporary exhibition programmes of any great ambition. It will be important to provide funding to improve their capacity to run this kind of programme, through Renaissance in the Regions.

Question 5: Are there aspects of the arrangements in other countries that it would be desirable and practical to adopt in the UK (taking account of the particular circumstances of the UK's taxation and regulatory regime)?

The MA does not have any comments to make on this question.

Question 6: How can we encourage donation, and loans, of works of art and culture by people during their lifetime?

As we noted above, under Question 2, we believe that there is scope for extending Acceptance in Lieu to other forms of tax liability in addition to inheritance tax. We see no logic in the current limited applicability of AIL.

We believe that a scheme of gift aid in kind, whereby objects deemed to be of pre-eminent importance could be off-set against other tax bills would be simple, workable and would help encourage people to donate object so museums during their lifetimes. This would also have the advantage of fostering long-term relationships between donors and museums which would help to create a more conducive climate of co-operation and trust than is sometimes currently the case.

Question 7: Do you have any comment on the current level and purpose of corporate and individual donation of money and sponsorship in helping museums and galleries to acquire works of art? Is there more Government could do to encourage philanthropy in this area by individuals or by companies?

Question 8: How far do the current arrangements distort the art market, in particular prices?

The MA does not have comments to make on Questions 7-8.

Question 9: How can we help museums and galleries to take best advantage of the often short window of opportunity to acquire significant and costly works of art and culture before they are sold abroad?

As stated above, we believe that NHMF funding must be restored to a realistic level: as a first step, to its former level of £12m a year. Clearly, this would still not be sufficient to allow it to purchase every work of art or culture which was threatened with sale abroad, but it would be a better basis to start from.

To help speed up some application procedures where possible, one possibility might be to set up NHMF with two streams: a fund for major purchases and another which would focus on saving works of lower value, perhaps up to £500,000.

If it were to offer grants of up to 95 per cent of an object's value, such a fund would enable the purchase of a large proportion of the objects whose export was stopped by the Reviewing Committee, at relatively little cost to the Treasury.

3. Conclusions

The MA is delighted that this review is taking place now. We believe that museum collecting is in decline and that this has to be addressed now if we are to hand on our national collection in a good state to future generations.

The MA is planning a major research report into issues around collecting and collections, starting in autumn 2003. The report will take as its starting point a vision of what museum collections should look like by 2050, and will consider what changes to museum practices and to funding and support structures are needed to get us there. The MA may have a role to play in taking forward within the museum sector any issues that the Review identifies as being of critical importance as part of this process.

For further information, please contact

Helen Wilkinson
Policy Officer
Museums Association
24 Calvin Street
London
E1 6NW
Email: helenw@museumsassociation.org
Tel: 020 7426 6950