Fears for the future of civic museums

Museum services at risk as local authorities wait to find out if more help will come from central government
Jonathan Knott
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A toddler and her father at Leeds Museum
A toddler and her father at Leeds Museum Leeds Museums and Galleries
Local authority-funded museums across the UK are facing an uncertain future as cash-strapped councils wait to find out whether national governments will provide additional financial support. Tom Riordan, the chief executive of Leeds City Council, recently warned that overspending due to the Covid-19 crisis could force it to take “draconian measures”, meaning non-statutory services such as cultural institutions could end. The council runs nine museums and heritage sites. Similar financial challenges are widespread across the UK. In recent research by the BBC, at least five English councils warned that they may meet the criteria for issuing a section 114 notice. This means a council cannot balance its budget and prevents any new expenditure except for safeguarding vulnerable people and statutory services. The BBC found that more than 150 councils were forecasting a combined budget shortfall of at least £3.2bn. Six councils said they were planning an emergency budget and 12 more were planning an in-year budget. Many town and city museums could be at risk if councils have to cut their costs. Tony Butler, the chief executive of Derby Museums and a steering group member for the English Civic Museums Network (ECMN), says that while the situation for these museums is generally not as urgent as that facing independents, there is huge uncertainty about the future. Some of the 45 museum services in the ECMN sit within local government and others are run by trusts, but for most the local authority is a major source of income. “The challenge that most civic museums will face won’t come this financial year. It will come next financial year and the years after that,” says Butler. “Partly that is because local authorities themselves don’t know the extent to which central government will give them any additional support. “At the moment it feels as though there is a lack of clarity from central government regarding future funding for local authorities.” Butler says Derby Museums has found itself facing the twin challenges of a reduction in its commercial income and uncertainty about future local authority support: “We’re not at immediate risk of closure, but we do look into the future and see this double bind”.
Derby City Council provides about 35% of the museum trust’s annual income. The council has indicated it intends to continue with a similar level of support next financial year, but “a lot depends on negotiations with central government”, says Butler.
Cities in crisis
The councils facing the biggest deficits are often in big cities. The largest is forecast by Birmingham City Council, which expects a budget shortfall of £212m this financial year. Birmingham Museums Trust, which manages nine venues in the city, said it was in ongoing discussions with key stakeholders including the council, which provides just under 40% of its income.
“Our priority now is working to secure the long-term financial sustainability of the trust, so we are in a position to eventually reopen all of our sites,” said a spokeswoman for the museum trust, which has not yet announced reopening dates.
“The government must recognise that for many museums a high proportion of our income is dependent on visitors. The impact of closing our doors over the last few weeks and the decreased footfall expected over the coming months ahead with have a significant impact on independent museum trusts.
“We cannot wait to welcome visitors back as soon as it is practical to do so, but significant investment will be needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of museums and the sector.”
Manchester City Council is expecting a budget shortfall of £133m this year, increasing to £160m next year. Councillor Carl Ollerhead, executive member for finance, said: "Let's not dress this up - the picture is bleak." The council’s executive member for culture, leisure and skills, Lutfhur Rahman, wrote an open letter to culture secretary Oliver Dowden last month calling for urgent support for the city’s cultural sector.
"We will not stand by in Manchester and watch our theatres, museums, and galleries take their last gasp,” said Rahman. “Every day we hear from organisations across the city that tell us they are coming closer and closer to their final curtain.”
"Without more support, and crucially without being able to have a say in what support is needed and what the future could look like if the right support was in place, this could easily be the end of the road for many artists and cultural organisations, and for what has been for generations the life-blood of our city.” Leeds expects a shortfall of £60.6m this year. But despite the chief executive’s warning, a spokesman said that no services have yet been identified at risk. A statement from the council said: “Our libraries, museums and galleries are a cornerstone of our city’s heritage – providing both educational opportunities for our young people and making Leeds an attractive place to live, work and visit. They remain an integral and part of our plans for the future of Leeds. “Alongside local authorities across the UK, the Covid-19 pandemic has presented us with unprecedented financial challenges and we are being forced to plan for all possible contingencies should we be unable to secure further funding or financial flexibilities from central government. No decisions have been made about which services this could affect. “We are fully committed to celebrating our city and supporting culture and the arts within council and in the wider cultural community both now and in the future.” Several Scottish councils are also expecting large budget shortfalls. The Highlands Council expects a worse case shortfall of £96.9m. And City of Edinburgh and Aberdeen City councils said they could each fall short by more than £80m in a worst case scenario. Highlands High Life, a charity owned by the Highlands Council which manages eight visitor attractions including museums, has not yet responded to a request for comment from Museums Journal about how the expected shortfall could impact museums.
Failing partnerships In some places, the effects of the crisis have already been seen. Vivacity, a charitable trust which managed Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery as well as other sports, arts, leisure, and heritage venues for Peterborough City Council, terminated its contract with the authority in June “as a direct result of the financial impact of Covid-19”. This triggered a 90-day transition period during which the trust will work with the council to hand back services. The council said a strong arts, leisure and cultural offer was “vitally important” to the city as it comes out of lockdown. It has begun a review of the services to consider how they might be delivered in the future – either by the council alone, or in partnership with others. It will also “work closely with Vivacity as it discusses the future with its 500 strong workforce”. Guildford Borough Council has discussed putting a planned £18m redevelopment of Guildford Museum on hold, as well as pausing other projects. A report for the council’s executive on 23 June recommended stopping work on the redevelopment, but a decision was deferred to allow for to allow for discussion with partner organisations. The proposals will be “resubmitted when there [is] a clearer picture of future funding”. If local museums can survive, Derby’s Tony Butler believes there is an opportunity for them to contribute to reimagining town and city centres amid a decline in retail, which he says the Covid-19 crisis is accelerating. “We all think we’ve got a really important role to play in future recovery,” he says about the ECMN. “In the meantime our big concern is to ensure that there is clarity and stability of funding for our organisations”. Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, said: “We are deeply concerned about the plight of town and city museums throughout the UK. Local authorities are in a difficult position because of the extra costs associated with dealing with Covid-19 and the prospect of future cuts to their budgets. “We are already hearing of major local authorities that are considering not funding their museums and galleries because they are non-statutory services. We are deeply concerned that some museums will not be able to reopen after lockdown. Museums are vital civic spaces and can play a critical role in rebuilding and recovery with their communities – but they need funding to be able to do that.”

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