Sector backs finding that ACE must focus more on museums

Government review says Arts Council England needs to be more aware of the specific issues that museums face
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Rob Sharp
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Museums leaders have backed findings in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s tailored review of Arts Council England (ACE) that suggest ACE should increase its focus on museums.

Stakeholder feedback published in the document suggests that the arts council is still seen “as a primarily ‘arts focused’ organisation”, with 64% of respondents feeling ACE performed very or fairly well at supporting the arts, compared with 47% for museums.

Tony Butler, the executive director of Derby Museums Trust, says: “I reluctantly agree with the general findings of the review. [ACE’s director of museums] John Orna-Ornstein was a creative and enthusiastic leader but there didn’t seem to be a recognition of the specific issues affecting museums that differentiate them from the rest of the cultural sector.”

Butler says there is not enough recognition of this at director level. “In south-east England, where Hedley Swain is the director of the region, you’ve got someone with a very solid museum background but, as a whole, I’d echo what came out in the report about not really understanding or acknowledging the issues around collections and buildings.

“There is a need at director level to engage with local authorities over funding for museums,” Butler says. “In many cases, local authorities are the principal funders for museums, with ACE as a lesser contributor. For many arts organisations, it’s the other way round, which is why there is a particular squeeze on civic museums at present.”

Arts council culture

Respondents to the report spoke favourably about ACE’s museums team, which they describe as “engaged, knowledgeable and committed”. But beyond this dedicated team, “awareness of museums and their specific issues was not widely ingrained in the culture of the arts council”.

Orna-Ornstein will join the National Trust as director of curation and experience
this month.

Sarah Russell, the director of the Norris Museum in Cambridgeshire, says: “It was a useful report to give some kind of direction. It sounds as if people have been honest.

“I hope the accessibility of ACE’s museums team continues. It will be important for the next person to get out and involved with the nitty-gritty and the little places as well.
“For smaller museums, ACE can be a big unknown beast because we talk a different language – often one of survival. Orna-Ornstein did a good job at trying to make inroads.”
 
Museums in England are also adapting to the abolition of the Major Partner Museum programme and its integration into ACE’s existing National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) funding stream. The NPOs for 2018-2022 will be announced this month.

Russell says: “For a first-time applicant, it was challenging to understand what was required and how to complete the application to give yourself the best opportunity to express yourself in the right kind of way. The regional manager came and told me about it. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have heard about it. That was a change in attitude.”

Sue Mackay, the curator of Keswick Museum and Art Gallery (see p32), in Cumbria, and a recently elected Museums Association board member, welcomes ACE being recognised in the report “as being good value for money” and “a lean and efficient organisation”.

She adds: “It’s good that they noted that ACE needs to incorporate museums and libraries further.

“It’s always ‘arts and culture’, so it’s great that Nicholas Serota joined as chair [in February]. I think that will help things along.”

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