Asset management

Museums and galleries are finding innovative new ways to generate revenue from their collections
Nicola Sullivan
The well-known proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” perfectly describes what is happening in the cultural sector as sustained cuts to public funding are forcing many museums, galleries and heritage sites to come up with new, and sometimes unusual, ways to generate revenue from their collections.

There is more than one commercial model that museums can follow. But generally, in order to be financially successful, ventures need to be closely tailored to an institution’s collection and audience. For instance, projects with high-end retailers may be appropriate for design museums and art galleries, but they are less likely to work for institutions that focus on anthropology, social his- tory and natural history.

Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle, Cumbria, is investigating ways in which to capitalise on people’s fascination with the Border Reivers – a ruthless group of raiders that defended their communities on the Anglo-Scottish border against invading armies during a bloody 300-year conflict between England and Scotland.

The aim of the project is to develop a range of Border Reivers merchandise that triggers further interest not only in warrior-linked items in Tullie House’s permanent collection, but also in other heritage sites that offer further insights into their lives and the natural environment in which they lived and fought.

To this end there are plans for the merchandise to be stocked at a number of tourist information centres in the area, as well as heritage sites such as Haltwhistle in Northumberland and Hawick in Scotland.

“It is about looking at how all these differ- ent sites can work together and benefit both from people’s fascination with this subject and also from the buying power of a larger group – almost like a retail consortium,” says Adrian Mason, the head of marketing and operations at Tullie House.

While the exact range of items has not yet been decided, it’s likely to include mugs, pens and T-shirts. As part of efforts to link local people with their past, a large proportion of the items will emphasise Border Reiver surnames, such as Armstrong, Robson and Charlton.

“That’s what really excites people,” Mason says. “They can see the connection between where they live, how they have ended up now, and how this could influence the future.”
There are also plans to sell books on genealogy, and offer paid-for sessions with curators at Tullie House to provide visitors with more information on their family history during the Border Reiver period, which spanned the 13th to 17th centuries.

The project, which will see the merchan- dise go on sale in February, has been sup- ported by a £2,700 grant made available through the Museums Association’s Transformers programme. The programme, supported by Arts Council England, is aimed at mid-career professionals and is designed to promote radical change in museums to encourage new ways of engaging with com- munities and testing innovative commercial and operational practices.

Meanwhile, the exquisite floral designs of William Morris are perhaps a more natural fit for retail merchandise such as scarves, cups and stationary. However, the William Morris Gallery, located in the designer’s former childhood home in Walthamstow, London, is now reaping the rewards of a much wider range of commercial activities.

After securing a £95,000 grant from the arts council’s Museum Resilience Fund – now closed to applications ahead of this month’s comprehensive spending review – the gallery was able to investigate a number of licensing opportunities and set up an online shop. It achieved this by working with a heritage-licensing consultant, employing a volunteer and appointing two members of staff, including development officer Mhairi Muncaster.

Retailers seek authenticity

This led to a lucrative collaboration with retailer Jigsaw, which incorporated one pat- tern and one image from the William Morris Gallery’s collection into a range of clothing and homeware products. The items, offered on a limited basis, met sales expectations and yielded £25,000 for the gallery.

Now the gallery is working with lifestyle brand House of Hackney, which has reworked Morris’s signature designs on a range of items, including clothing, lampshades and wallpapers. It has also negotiated a deal with gardening firm Briers, which has launched a William Morris range of Wellington boots, gardening tools and flowerpots.

These commercial ventures have not only been lucrative from a financial point of view, they have also generated press coverage and reignited interest in the museum and its col- lections, says Muncaster.

Even though much of Morris’s work is no longer subject to copyright – patterns can be downloaded online – retail partners are keen to be associated with “authentic” items held by the museum, which has the right to use photographs of original prints and drawings for commercial enterprises.

“You can download William Morris pat- terns from the internet, but they are not going to be good quality,” Muncaster says. “What people are seeking from us is authenticity. We have the biggest collection of Morris’s work in the world and we’re based in his former childhood home.”

The gallery is currently applying for its own trademark – a move that will provide a greater reassurance for future licensees – but Muncaster is keen to point out that the gallery will only work with brands that reflect its ethos and institutional values.

Alistair Brown, the policy officer at the Museums Association (MA), stresses the need to make ethical decisions relating to new commercial ventures and to protect the integrity of the collections. “It’s important for museums to take new opportunities and become more entrepreneurial to develop their commercial offer,” he says. “However, when they enter into a new commercial part- nership they must not lose sight of their own values.”

The MA has just published its revised Code of Ethics, which features advice on resolving a wide range ethical issues, includ- ing those related to commercial activities. Maintaining this balance was important for the Wedgwood Museum, which has been refurbished and now sits at the heart of the World of Wedgwood visitor experience cen- tre a £34m redevelopment of the Wedgwood Estate in Barlaston near Stoke-on-Trent.

Managed by Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton (WWRD), which was acquired by Finnish multinational Fiskars Group earlier this year, the World of Wedgwood includes a dining hall, tea bar, flagship store and a decorating studio where visitors can make their own pots. Open since July, the experi- ence includes tours of Wedgwood’s working factory, which is responsible for half of the company’s global ceramics output.

Anthony Jones, the chief financial officer of WWRD, says this multi-faceted approach is expected to attract 145,000 visitors in its first year. The museum was almost forced to sell its collection to plug a £135m pension def- icit inherited from the Wedgwood Pension Plan Trustee that went into administration in 2009. This new approach is important for the long-term future of Wedgwood Museum.

The museum was saved last year after a successful public fundraising campaign raised £15.75m and its collection of 80,000 ceramic artefacts was bought by the Art Fund and gifted to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which loaned it back to the museum on a long-term basis.

“As an active, interested employer, and the owners of the Wedgwood brand, we stepped in and said we would love to run this museum in the context of Wedgwood today,” says Jones. “There are a few obvious syner- gies – one visitor atrium, one point of arrival and one person serving visitors. This is one offer, the different elements are not compet- ing against one another.”

The changes, says Jones, have also allowed for a much more compelling educa- tion programme. The museum provides a comprehensive history of Josiah Wedgwood and his work, the decorating studio shows how old techniques were applied in practice in the industry, and the factory tour sheds light on 21st-century production methods.

WWRD is also expanding the dining hall and tea bar side of the business, and is open- ing outlets in China, India and Taiwan. This profitable venture has the added advantage of promoting British heritage to eastern visitors, a growing market for UK tourism.

Attracting new audiences

Financial challenges also forced The Atkinson, an arts venue in Southport, to look for new ways to generate income.

After local authority funding cuts led to a restructure and redundancies, Nicola Euston, the museum manager at The Atkinson, was asked to develop a project that would achieve an annual income of £8,000. As a result, Euston worked with volunteers to transform the venue’s large first-floor corri- dor into a commercial gallery, which opens this month. Income will be generated from hiring the space, and extra revenue will come from the 30% commission rate applied to any artwork sold, though The Atkinson will cover the cost of VAT.

The move will allow The Atkinson to display more contemporary art and bring in new audiences . Euston also hopes that artists displaying in the gallery will produce work inspired by the institution’s varied collections, which include items relating to natural history, taxidermy and decorative art.

There are also plans to secure funding from the arts council for an artist in resi- dence. “This will help develop a young and upcoming artist and get them not just to work with the collection but with the building as well,” Euston says.

It is becoming increasingly important for museums, galleries and heritage sites to be commercially successful. But they also need to remember that it is vital to find creative business ideas that don’t jeopardise their institutional ethos or the integrity of their displays and exhibitions.

Risky business

An entrepreneurial culture and an appetite for risk are crucial to the future resilience
of museums that are funded by local authorities, according to research conducted by Arts Council England.

The report – Research to Understand the Resilience, and Challenges to This, of Local Authority Museums – published last month, argues that to some extent the level of funding reductions is immaterial, and that local authority museums must be prepared to move to financial models that incorporate a mixture of funding and revenue streams.

The findings also show that museums are more likely to have an entrepreneurial culture if the local authority that runs them does. “Where local authorities seek to generate income from a range of sources and are prepared to take risks, museum services will be able to seek to generate income and take risks in order to reduce their reliance on public funding and become better able to finance their own activities,” states the report.

When reviewing options on how to improve a museum service’s ability to generate more earned income, stakeholders need to understand the local authority’s approach to risk-taking and entrepreneurialism.

“In some cases it may be that a museum has the freedom to make vital changes from within the local authority, in other circumstances this may not be the case.

In this context, an entrepreneurial culture and appetite for risk and change across the local authority is crucial,” says the report.

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