Remaining public spirited - Museums Association

Remaining public spirited

Museums are maintaining their exhibitions and events programmes, despite budget cuts 
The news that, as a result of a £3m budget deficit, National Museums Liverpool has had to charge for some temporary exhibitions for the first time in a decade, highlights the impact that cuts are having on public programming.

Last month, Museums Journal contacted several museums across the UK to assess how national and local authority cuts – and the economic downturn in general – were affecting their exhibition programmes.

The feedback from the sample of nine paints an interesting picture. With high fixed operating costs in museums, activities such as public programming are vulnerable to cuts, and more than half of respondents have seen reductions in that area.

But only two respondents were planning to reduce the number of temporary exhibitions. This figure echoes the findings of last year’s Museums Association (MA) cuts survey, which showed that 71% of respondents were trying to protect the number of public events they offered, even in the face of cuts.

This may be because dropping them is a false economy; while the cost of producing temporary shows or hosting touring exhibitions is significant, they are essential for drumming up fundraising support, boosting collections knowledge, drawing in repeat visitors, reaching new audiences and generating secondary income through retail.

Creative thinking

In the worst-case scenario, cutting public programming can affect a museum’s long-term viability. But maintaining exhibition output isn’t easy – in the 2011 MA survey, more than 60% of respondents said the quality of their shows would be degraded by stretched resources.

More recently, institutions say maintaining their programming has required sacrifices in other areas and a lot of creative thinking.

Some are outsourcing design and production when required, rather than employing a permanent exhibition team. More than half have changed their admissions policy, including trialling entry charges for the first time or raising existing prices for some or all temporary exhibitions.

Production trends are also changing. At Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima), which recently received an uplift from Arts Council England (ACE) after two years of cutbacks, director Kate Brindley says the gallery has started relying more on touring exhibitions because of staffing and budgetary restraints.

She says the changes to the organisation are “not necessarily a bad thing”, and it is making better use of its resources and collaborating more with partners to share costs and curatorial authorship.

By reducing the budget per exhibition, Mima has managed to avoid cutting the number of shows it runs each year, adds Brindley. Although admission charges have not been introduced, visitors now pay for previously free services such as talks, gallery tours and school visits.

In Northern Ireland, where £14.5m is being cut from the culture budget by 2014, National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) is reducing its public programming for 2013-15 and increasing some entry fees, according to Sinéad McCartlan, head of collections research and interpretation.

In contrast to Mima, McCartlan says NMNI is taking fewer touring exhibitions because of transport and other costs. Instead, it is thinking more creatively about using its own collection to generate material for temporary exhibitions.

McCartlan adds that it has also developed mutually beneficial partnerships with external bodies to provide public talks and events, keeping exhibitions “fresh” for longer.

Indirect benefits

Julie Finch, head of Museums, Galleries and Archives Bristol, says although the service has been streamlined, it is maintaining public programming as a high priority because of the secondary spend it brings in through increased footfall.

Museums Sheffield, a former Renaissance hub, was dealt a blow in February after it missed out on major grant funding from ACE. The trust has brought numerous high-profile blockbusters to the city over the past decade, but according to new chief executive Kim Streets, it will inevitably have to cut public programming – though it will strive to keep exhibitions free.

The trust plans to make the most of the shows it does run, says Streets, by “milking them for all they’re worth” with longer running times, more events, talks and tours. After Museum Sheffield’s transitional funding ends next year, there will be greater focus on collaborative partnerships and working with in-house collections, she adds.

In these difficult financial times, trends towards sharing resources, utilising collections and working in partnership to protect frontline services are encouraging. But with disproportionate cuts to some regions, the worst hit may not have the same room for manoeuvre.

The MA’s 2012 survey into museum cuts will be published in June.

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