Arts and culture take centre stage as local elections loom - Museums Association

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Arts and culture take centre stage as local elections loom

As Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland go to the polls, politicians are being pressed on funding plans, while museums are being highlighted in discussions about how arts and culture can help governments meet targets in key policy areas
Nicola Sullivan
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The museum sector is enlivening political debate in the run-up to elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on 5 May. Politicians from all parties are being pressed on tough questions relating to public funding and on the execution of overarching strategies for arts and culture.

The importance of museums is also being emphasised in discussions about how arts and culture can help governments meet targets in several key policy areas, including health and wellbeing, education and social inclusion.

As Museums Journal went to press, Wales and Scotland had held culture-specific hustings, while a more general event had taken place in Northern Ireland.

Scotland

In Scotland the die has already been cast for a Scottish National Party (SNP) win, so the focus lies on how many seats other parties can gain from each other. The incumbent administration’s record on arts and culture includes the publication, in 2012, of a national strategy for museums and galleries, designed to increase the sustainability of museums.

This led to Museums Galleries Scotland becoming the national development body for the sector, responsible for encouraging knowledge sharing and attracting new investment.

Despite this move, museums in Scotland – like elsewhere in the UK – have been hit hard with continuing budget cuts, as block grants handed down from Whitehall are reduced as part of austerity measures. Indeed, National Museums Scotland’s cost-saving measures have resulted in strikes.

At the culture hustings in Glasgow last month, Scottish politicians came under pressure to help improve the financial position of local authorities, which fund many regional museums. Local authorities have been hit by reductions in revenue spending, which are being cut by a further 3.5% for 2016-17. Scottish councils’ funding allocation is primarily determined by a government grant, council tax rates and business rates.

Under the SNP, council tax has been frozen for the past nine years, although the government has subsidised the amount by which it would have increased. However, the party now plans to introduce a cap on increases, viewed as a sidestep from any potential major reform.

Fiona Hyslop, the culture secretary since 2011, argued that despite the fact that culture is not statutorily protected, there had been no “disproportionate” reduction in funding for culture so far compared with other council services.

However, the Green Party’s Zara Kitson said the “harsh reality” of the impact of cuts to local authority budgets could not be denied. “Local governments are getting into a situation where statutory spend is all that they are going to be able to deliver,” she said.

Kitson said the Green Party would increase revenue for local authorities by replacing council tax with a “fairer” tax based on the value of residential properties.

Similarly, Claire Baker, the Labour MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, said the party would replace council tax with a land-based one, and use the new powers granted to the Scottish government to raise the basic rate of income tax by one penny – a move that would generate £500m, avoiding cuts to culture, education and other services.

Baroness Annabel Goldie, the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said local authorities needed a “degree of certainty” about their annual funding allocation.

There was a general consensus over the benefits of culture being linked to other government departments including health, education and justice. “These different departments should be allocating their budgets to culture and art, if it can be illustrated that they improve outcomes,” said Goldie.

All panellists agreed that museums should remain free to enter. Kitson said barriers to entering museums weren’t just financial, but also “psychological”, so it was essential for institutions to engage communities through outreach work.

She added that there should be more investment for organisations such as the Glasgow Women’s Library, which connects with the community “spectacularly well” through outreach work in the east end of the city.

Also on the point of increasing access, Hyslop said the SNP would introduce a “cultural experience fund” to ensure that all primary schools had the chance to visit Scotland’s historic estates, theatres, museums and galleries.

Wales

Pollsters predict that Labour will retain its lead in Wales, while declining support for the Conservatives will result in Plaid Cymru moving into second place. Ukip is expected to win multiple seats.

The first culture hustings in Wales, which took place last month, focused on how different parties would implement the Expert Review of Local Museums, the recommendations of which were accepted by the Welsh government, prior to the pre-election period of purdah.

The review’s key measures include a feasibility study into the creation of three regional bodies to support museums, the creation of a national museums’ council and a review of entry charges to non-national museums.

However, Ken Skates, the deputy minister for culture, sport and tourism, appeared to have backtracked on the recommendation of a national museums’ council being created, saying it could duplicate existing bodies.

Because of the forthcoming elections, the government was unable to commit to a transformation fund to support the transition of services to regional bodies (a local government restructure following the election could lead to the number of local authorities being reduced from 22 to eight) or to varied business rates for museums.

The expert review also advocates the introduction of a museums’ charter that would obligate local authorities to set out their intentions for museum services, as well as help develop the national collection and ensure the Museums Archives and Libraries Division provides training to help the sector tackle future challenges.

The expert review also found that 10% of Wales’s local authority museums operated at unsustainable levels. Since the report was published, many of the museums that it deemed sustainable have had their budgets cut. Despite this, the issue of museum funding did not feature prominently in the discussion.

Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association, said: “It was a shame that the crucial question of funding was largely ducked or ignored by the candidates. Skates said he would try to scope a transformation fund before the election, but as purdah has now descended, it seems unlikely there will be any action until after May.

Although some museums that have been under threat in England and Wales have gained a stay of execution, many are still at risk. Radical solutions are urgently needed, including, if necessary, intervention by the government.”

Northern Ireland

The discussion around arts and culture in Northern Ireland has focused on how the sector’s delivery will be affected by a restructure of government departments.

The role that art and culture plays in strengthening communities, and improving health and wellbeing, has also been a focus, as well as how the sector can commemorate the centenaries of pivotal events in the nation’s history.

The last Northern Irish administration decided to consolidate government departments, with a reduction from 12 to nine following this month’s elections. As a result, the streamlined Department for Communities will take over the functions of the Department of Culture and Leisure (Dcal), indicating that politicians believe in the benefits of combining the two key policy areas of culture and community.

This realignment of departments coincides with Dcal’s strategy for culture and arts for 2016 to 2026. The strategy aims to set a blueprint for arts and culture, focusing on increasing access and participation, investing in communities, and tackling poverty and social inclusion.

Although the value of engaging communities in culture is advocated by the major parties, there are concerns that such a strong focus on community projects would divert funding away from other areas. Paddy Gilmore, the director of learning and partnership at National Museums Northern Ireland, said: “You can’t throw the baby out with the bath water and put all the resources into community-based cultural activity without funding museums and libraries, and archives and theatres.”

In the Democratic Unionist Party’s manifesto, there is a strong emphasis on marking key historical events of the past 100 years. The party wants to make 3 May a one-off public holiday in 2021 to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland becoming a legal entity, as well as run connected events.

Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionists’ paper on the arts, published in March, outlines its commitment to establish a working group between the departments of communities, education, health and the economy to develop and agree joint priorities for the arts for the next 10 years. It also wants to provide a longer-term allocation of funding for the arts, with agreed aims and outcomes.

The development of a coordinated strategy to enhance philanthropy in the arts (including peer and professional support networks and advisory services) is one of the measures outlined in the Social Democratic and Labour Party’s manifesto.


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