The Wellcome Collection's Life Before Death exhibition in 2008 featured a collection of portraits taken before and after each sitter's death. Wellcome Images

The exhibition programmers

Rob Sharp, Issue 113/05, p22-27, 01.05.2013
Rob Sharp speaks to some of those involved in exhibition-making to see how temporary shows are faring under budget cuts
Temporary exhibitions, scintillating events, exhibits with local resonance. These key ingredients to an institution’s programme can be resource- and staff- intensive. So in economically straitened times, it’s possible that these once-necessary activities could become dispensable luxuries.

The sector has suffered significant job cuts this year. National, local authority and independent museums have all seen redundancies and budget cuts, and resources for exhibitions are also under pressure.

But is this actually causing a reduction in the quality of shows? Do those at the forefront of creating exciting exhibitions think they are losing out, and how are they trying to remedy this?

There is a danger that, with an increasing reliance on collaboration with national museums, local venues could be seen as “junior partners”.

London’s National Gallery, for example, has just sought partners for its tour of old master paintings.

In this context, regional museums may find they have little say over exhibition content as the power balance shifts to the capital, where those who have more money have an obligation to share their shows.

Do the regionals get what they want, or do they get what they’re given? And are they avoiding interesting topics in favour of whatever generates the most cash?

26042013-feature-exhibitions-janice-laneJanice Lane
Director of learning, exhibitions and new media, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

We face different challenges to institutions in London. Yes, there has been an impact on temporary exhibitions because of changes in the economy, but these circumstances do make you think about what you want to achieve.

 We have become very aware of our real costs. We couldn’t get away with charging £10 or £15 for a single exhibition. Our current collections need to be more visible so people understand their value.

With regard to longer-running temporary exhibitions, we may benefit from people promoting them through word of mouth, which is easier if they’re there for longer. While that can affect the scale, I wouldn’t let it affect the subjects we tackle. You need to think creatively.

26042013-feature-exhibitions-paul-hobsonPaul Hobson
Director, Contemporary Art Society

Where museums are reimagining the potential of their own collections, that’s very positive. Lots of institutions are also developing partnerships to maintain ambitious programming.

This can also involve working more closely with commercial galleries who might provide support. However, none of us wants public institutions working so closely with the commercial sector that they are producing shows that we wouldn’t come to expect.

Touring exhibitions provide a great resource for many organisations, but there may be cases where local curatorial staff are so depleted that museums run the risk of turning into receiving houses. Some curators fear that these types of initiatives may support arguments for disinvestment in the local museums as knowledge-based entities.

26042013-feature-exhibitions-james-petoJames Peto
Chief curator, Wellcome Collection, London

We’re very lucky not to be directly affected by the cuts but we are doing things differently as we are about to start a significant programme of building work.

The national institutions, if we look at the Pompeii show at the British Museum and the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A, are still clearly going to attract record numbers, so things don’t feel that different.

But sharing resources forges interesting relationships between people who might not otherwise be looking for partners. We are looking at a programme of events and exhibitions by young people, for young people.

The other issue is a feeling of a diminishing interest in culture in the national curriculum. There could be a bigger gap to fill, and the onus of that could fall upon galleries and museums.

26042013-feature-exhibitions-sandy-nairneSandy Nairne
Director, National Portrait Gallery, London

We feel that presenting the collection as part of a free offer is the first thing that we should be doing. We have made a change to the way we do displays. Occasionally, it relates to how often, but it is not a big shift, and we are still getting increasing numbers of visitors.

We couldn’t be more aware of the constraints facing some museums elsewhere. There’s a great creative spirit out there. We have to be selective about what we do.

We have a show on George Catlin going to Birmingham this summer because George went there in the 1840s, so there’s a connection. Whenever we tour the major prizes, such as the BP Portrait Award, we do some fantastic activity with schools. There is still a lot of energy.

26042013-feature-exhibitions-david-spenceDavid Spence
Director of programmes, Museum of London

London is almost oversupplied in terms of its cultural market for exhibitions. That’s not reflected in other parts of the UK. We already have a strong exhibition programme under our belt and we are intending to increase our larger paid-for exhibition programming so that it becomes more frequent.

We are probably not going to focus so much on temporary displays. That’s informed by the need to recoup investments on exhibitions, not just in direct costs but in terms of promoting them. The costs can sometimes be hefty. The amount of resource taken up by smaller display is often disproportionate to their size and public impact.

I haven’t seen that programming has been hit by the economic climate. It is a powerful way for museums to promote themselves, and in terms of below the line activity, they are a good way to get press attention and lots of museums rely on that to generate repeat visits.

26042013-feature-exhibitions-jonathan-wallisJonathan Wallis
Assistant head of museums, Derby Museums Trust

We have changed our emphasis because we used to spend more time on temporary shows. But our permanent displays were not necessarily being maintained the way they should.

If you ask anyone in Derby what they think is important, almost half will be able to talk to you about Joseph Wright, of whose work we have the best collection. So the big temporary shows might drive footfall but they don’t necessarily live in people’s hearts.

While the nationals have great collections, we have too. We lend to the nationals more than we borrow. We can’t afford to borrow stuff. Some national museums, with their schemes to lend work around the UK, seem to be promoting their own agenda. These partnerships are fantastic when they are respectful to our needs.

26042013-feature-exhibitions-toby-watleyToby Watley
Head of programming, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Birmingham and the West Midlands have been very significantly hit by public funding cuts. We do bring spend to the city; we think about that when programming. Certainly in this climate we aim to be more creative and commercially minded to remain financially viable.

Over the summer we are charging more regularly, with higher entrance fees. Working with major partners such as the Government Art Collection or Tate gives us access to expertise and the possibility of new audiences.

We are also extending the length of some of our exhibitions and not doing as many. We are working more with national institutions on the bigger shows. At a regional level, we are also offering support for smaller institutions nearer to us.

26042013-feature-exhibitions-chris-kirbyChristopher Kirby
Head of collections and programmes, the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry

National institutions, through regional partnerships, are seeing the value of their collections going out and getting audiences and getting record-breaking numbers.

As a regional museum, there is a sense of being the junior partner, though the British Museum, who we work with, has tried hard to engage us in terms of exhibition design and interpretation.

Often, national museums’ partners are taking exhibitions and charging people to go in. The British Museum has acknowledged that it is having to do this; it’s harder to get major sponsors so it has to pass on costs. It does dictate the kind of exhibition you put on. It has to be popular.

Visitors have to feel they are getting value for money. Museums do realise that if you charge, your numbers can decrease by as much as 50%.

However, if you’re canny about donation boxes, and training facilitators to approach visitors in a tactful way, a significant amount of money can be made. This is the way many museums are going.