Autumn budget provides cold comfort for museums

Introduction of a £2m Cultural Development Fund will not make up for a major cut in local government funding
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Rob Sharp
November’s autumn budget piled further pressure on local authority museums with a significant reduction in local government funding and only £2m earmarked for place-based cultural development nationwide.

Stephen Deuchar, the director of the Art Fund, the national art charity, says the budget offers “little of substance for museums”.

“The introduction of a £2m Cultural Development Fund to ‘support the role culture can play in regeneration and local growth’ is welcome news in principle, but in political terms, it’s loose change,” he adds. “And at the moment, we don’t know how the fund will be allocated and what the eligibility criteria will be.”

Deuchar supports the introduction of £30m for digital skills distance-learning courses, and the simplification of the Gift Aid Donor Benefits scheme as also potentially beneficial to museums and their staff.

Chancellor Philip Hammond says the distance-learning courses are “to boost digital skills”, while the Gift Aid scheme will partly be simplified by reducing the number of donation categories to which its rules apply.

‘Little joy on the horizon’

“But there’s little joy on the horizon for the local authority-funded museums that are facing further funding cuts in the year ahead,” says Deuchar. “We shouldn’t just accept, as the Mendoza Report [the independent museums review published in November] seems to, that there’s no more public money for museums. Central government should take a more proactive approach in demonstrating to local authorities the wide social and economic benefits they can bring.”

Andrew Mackay, the director of Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust, says “museums that rely on local authority funding have been worried about this for some time now”.

He says the English Civic Museums Network, which was established in 2015 and represents more than 40 organisations, hopes to make the case to local authorities that museums are “more than just museums – they are civic spaces that can help with place making, and they are important to local authority agendas”.

Mackay says local authorities don’t necessarily look to museums to help them deliver the agendas that they need to.

“For our museum, there’s a tremendous amount of working with vulnerable people, with people with dementia,” he adds. “The city council wants to be a dementia-friendly city and realises that museums are doing so much of this good work. And this is happening all over the country.”

Mackay says the Cultural Development Fund might provide opportunities to improve the local economy.

A spokesman for the Local Government Association says it is disappointing that the budget offered nothing to ease the financial crisis facing local services. “Funding gaps and rising demand for our adult social care and children’s services are threatening the vital services that care for our elderly and disabled, protect children and support families,” he says.

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