Ann Sumner (L), John Roles (R)

Head to head

Ann Sumner; John Roles, Issue 112/10, p21, 01.10.2012
Trust status or not trust status - that is the question
Ann Sumner is the director of the new Birmingham Museums Trust and John Roles is the head of Leeds Museums

Dear John

Things are going really well here and we’ve had a very successful launch of our trust over the summer. We are responsible for the museum and art gallery, historic house sites including Aston Hall and Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum.

We announced our new trustees in July and Birmingham City Council, Arts Council England, our friends and staff have been very positive about our move to trust status. The leader of the council, Albert Bore, has called a Birmingham Arts and Culture Summit on 18-19 October, which is a huge opportunity for us all in the region. Any thoughts that you might reconsider going to trust status?

Best wishes, Ann

Dear Ann

We aren’t considering trust status at present. Leeds has seen a period of unprecedented growth. Support from the lottery and Renaissance encouraged additional council support with the result that we have seen our visitors rise by 240% over the past decade, we have raised more than £40m and we can boast that 99% of the city’s schools have used our services in the past three years.

This success is more about the quality and commitment of our staff, effective leadership at all levels, strong advocacy, imaginative partnerships and embedding a less risk averse culture than governance models.

Best wishes, John

Dear John

Leeds has been a successful under your leadership. And you are right about govenance – I’ve undertaken a benchmarking exercise since taking up post and it is clear that there is no “one size fits all” across the UK.

Our two families of museums are similar in many ways (for instance we both have major historic houses within our portfolios) and yet clearly we flourish with very differing governance models! Equally, Bath and York are interesting.  While York has successfully gone to trust status, Bath opted not to do so. Both are thriving.

Best wishes Ann

Dear Ann

I don’t doubt trusts are the way forward if you are large enough, financially well-supported, with well-maintained building stock and have a long-term funding arrangement freeing you from the deadweight of central corporate services.

But it is simply not an option for most local authority services where one or two museums are not viable as standalone trusts. Their only option would be being submerged in a large leisure trust that would be unlikely to be better than being part of the local authority. Staff having less good conditions of service than in local government may be appealing but whether morally right is another question.

Best wishes John

Dear John

Trust status is clearly the right way forward for us in Birmingham. We believe that it brings greatly improved opportunities for fundraising, income generation and creating a clear corporate identity.

We hope to be a model for others – and it is clear that many other services are considering trust status and consulting us in the process. Our new trustees are very active in networking on our behalf to help us to raise our profile and ensure that our trust is at the heart of future urban regeneration in the city, as well as providing leadership in the region.

Best wishes Ann

Dear Ann

My issue is the prevailing assumption that trusts are good and local authority control bad. Being run by a local authority does not mean you cannot be innovative, entrepreneurial, generate income or play a role in urban regeneration.

It does not mean you cannot provide brilliant learning and community programmes, excellent exhibitions and provide quality visitor attractions. Being a trust does not mean you are immune from the current funding squeeze. The highly successful York Museums Trust recently lost a third of their local authority support. Trust status is not a panacea.

Best wishes, John


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John Roles
Head of Museums & Galleries, Leeds Museums & Galleries
15.10.2012, 16:59
interesting comments about whether its better or not to be part of a leisure trust but I think the response misses my point. One of issues many local authority museums face is that they are a small cog in a large local authority simply becoming a small cog in a leisure trust dominated by sports centres or theatres is not necessarily going to be an improvement. I remember listening to a presentation about an established trust running sports centres, swimming pools & theatres that was going to take on the small local museum. There was to be no additional trustee with a museum background to balance those on board who were passionate about sport & performing arts. That may work out brilliantly for the museum but I think my point remains valid that sucesss is not dependent on the form of governance- trusts are not autromatically good & local authorities bad.
Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
14.10.2012, 23:35

Who chooses the trustees? And how you avoid the problems associated with 'non-executives' in the private sector?

Will Birmingham City Council continue to be a major funder of the trust and how do you plan to ensure they still have a 'sense of ownership' because such a feeling is not only important to our visitors, users and local communities, but also other stakeholders such as those who hold the purse strings?

Meanwhile, far more importantly, I am looking forward to seeing your new History galleries. The pressure is on and I will definitely be comparing them to the updated Leeds City Museum and the excellent revamp at the Herbert in Coventry!! Hope i can pick up a few tips too when i visit.
MA Member
14.10.2012, 23:25
When someone uses Supermarket credit cards and pet insurance as a justification for trust status, then you have to seriously worry about whether trusts are a panacea for anything at all, let alone for hard-pressed museums.

Supemarkets got into credit cards because frankly they are money for old rope in our 'buy now, pay later' culture and as for pet insurance ( another scam from the insurance industry with the resulting effect of increasing vet fees way beyond inflation or even the veterinary profession's wildest dreams!!)
MA Member
03.10.2012, 23:03
The museum director arguing for trust status does so in jargon-laden language and management speak. The one arguing against does so in clear prose and direct sentences. I know which one I'd rather work with and for. I've had experience of a museum trust which is run by secretive control freaks. It suited them but I'd rather see museums under local authority auspices where at least there is a possibility of democratic control and an outside oversight over policy and management. There is much that can be hidden behind charity and trust status and that is not good for the people who visit and work in museums.
MA Member
01.10.2012, 12:31
"Their only option would be being submerged in a large leisure trust that would be unlikely to be better than being part of the local authority."

Seriously? We're still going with the 'anyone other than a Museum professional/museum-led trust is evil' argument? Lets just look at the 'real' world for a minute. I'm sure Credit Cards and Pet Insurance isnt the reason that Tesco or [insert any other large business here] got into retail, but they have grown to incorporate more than the 'beans and bread', after all selling is selling, and shelf space is shelf space. And, if those other products diversifies the income (insert funding for us) enough to weather financial storms, create brand alliance and build huge customer databases (with glorious technicolor audience data and contact info) then why cant the same be true for trusts?

If our 'future trusts' are all about brand loyalty, multi-skilled staff and understanding of strategic and broad outcomes of our 'cultural' facilities, then yes, for me, museums could do a lot worse than jumping into bed with a leisure trust, or even a theatre, or heritage, or - at risk of being pelted with acid free boxes - a trust with them all in [he ducks quickly].

So, can we assume that evil may come in many forms, but working cooperatively with trusts (established or not) on shared charitable objects is not, and should not, be one of them.