Museums set their sights on public sector commissions - Museums Association

Museums set their sights on public sector commissions

Cultural institutions are starting to explore the opportunities afforded by local authorities moving away from the direct provision of statutory services. Geraldine Kendall reports
There is no escaping the fact that the landscape of public service provision has changed dramatically in recent years.

Although not without controversy, the introduction of legislation such as the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which allows healthcare commissioners to put contracts out to tender from “any willing provider”, and the Localism Act 2011, which gives greater decision-making powers to local communities, is part of a long-standing trend among local authorities to move away from the direct provision of statutory services.

Cultural organisations are gradually beginning to explore the potential this opens up for them. Arts Council England aims to raise awareness with its £895,000 Cultural Commissioning Programme, which will bring new opportunities for cultural organisations in England to build relationships with public sector commissioners.

Bridging the gap

The scheme was launched last year to bridge the gap between cultural organisations and commissioners of statutory public services such as health, social care and education, and is just about to move into its delivery phase.

The programme does not offer grant funding to cultural organisations, but aims to help them to develop their skills and understanding of commissioning and maximise the available opportunities.

It is certainly a timely scheme, coming at a point when cultural bodies are increasingly being asked to demonstrate evidence-based outcomes to funders.

In the museum sector, it also chimes with the goals of initiatives such as the Museums Association’s Museums Change Lives campaign and the Happy Museum Project, both of which advocate that museums should focus more on the impact they can have on the wellbeing of individuals and communities in order to ensure long-term sustainability.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), which is leading the Cultural Commissioning Programme, has just completed a survey and scoping exercise to identify areas in which cultural sector activities overlap with the needs of commissioners.

According to programme manager Jessica Harris, this research has enabled the programme to narrow its focus to three particular areas in which cultural organisations have demonstrated considerable proven outcomes: older people, with outcomes including physical health and independence; mental health, with outcomes including preventative approaches and general wellbeing; and place-based commissioning, with outcomes including community cohesion and building stronger neighbourhoods.

Strategic relationships

The NCVO's consortium partner New Philanthropy Capital is now conducting more in-depth research into what the policy and funding landscape looks like in these areas.

This will inform a two-year programme of seminars, training and networking events, as well as advocacy and online resources to help cultural organisations maximise their potential impact and build strategic relationships with commissioners.

At the same time, the NCVO’s other partner, the New Economics Foundation, is recruiting for a series of commissioner-led pilot projects that will help develop a strong framework of knowledge for public sector commissioners detailing what the cultural sector can offer them.

“At the moment, [commissioners’ awareness] is dependent on a lot of legwork on the ground,” says Harris. “It is not happening in a systemic way.”

Cultural commissioning remains patchy across the country, but museums and galleries are gradually building up a body of experience in this area. Harris cites examples of good practice such as National Museums Liverpool’s House of Memories project.

The initiative, which was commissioned by the Department of Health to reach out to dementia carers and give them access to museum objects to use with patients, has achieved significant outcomes. More widescale evaluations have already demonstrated the impact that museums can have on dementia sufferers.

Several other institutions have also tested the water with cultural commissioning, including the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum in Bournemouth and Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, which are engaged in reminiscence work in their communities.

Source of funding

For the cash-strapped cultural sector, it is tempting to regard commissioning as another source of funding. But the financial benefits are, as yet, unproven. Harris says it is too early to say from the survey results, but anecdotal evidence from some museums suggests that bids are too resource heavy to be financially viable, at least in the short-term.

But the commissioning cycle brings with it a range of other benefits, such as cross-sector working, new partnerships and access to hard-to-reach audiences. The intense monitoring process also gives institutions a record of tangible outcomes – something that can often be difficult for cultural organisations to pin down in their everyday activities.

Although the Cultural Commissioning Programme will only run until July 2015, the arts council hopes it will act as a catalyst to stimulate greater collaboration between commissioners and the cultural sector in the longer term.

Ronan Brindley, head of learning, Manchester Art Gallery

A few years ago, we got wind of a commission to deliver an extended schools programme for a local school. We pitched, won the contract, successfully delivered the initiative and secured a lasting relationship with the school. Since then, we have been awarded spots of commissions here and there.

But in my experience, the growth of the commissioning ecology has been erratic, probably matching the gradual development of the mutual understanding between the various players involved. The signs are that the pace is quickening, especially regarding mental health and the wider health agenda.

There will be more opportunities for museums and galleries to seek out and secure commissions, but I am keeping a couple of things clear in my mind.

I think it is vital to know our strengths and look for commissions where these strengths can be applied to deliver the desired impact. I feel it is important to avoid the pressure of trying to dance to the wrong tune.

Also, I believe it is important to balance targeted interventions with what we have on offer universally.

The best result from a commissioning process is not just the beneficial impact on the target group or individuals, but the stepping up of those individuals to becoming regular museum and gallery participants.


The article originally stated that the NCVO is conducting research into the policy and funding landscape. That research is being undertaken by the NCVO's consortium partner, New Philanthropy Capital.

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