Spiralling energy costs leave museums facing a bleak winter
There are growing fears that many museums and galleries will be unable to afford the huge energy price rises due to take effect this October.
Institutions say they are facing staggering hikes to their electricity and gas bills, with some being quoted over 400% more than their current tariff.
Global pressures have sent energy bills soaring at a time when many cultural institutions are already struggling to get back on their feet following the pandemic. Businesses are not protected by the energy price cap, which only applies to domestic bills.
The Lowry theatre and gallery complex in Greater Manchester told the Guardian this week that it was facing a bill “substantially higher” than the £860,000 annual grant it receives as an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation.
Meanwhile Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery in Carlisle has had to raise its adult admission price to £15 to cover a 138% increase in its annual fuel bill.
The Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum in Widnes in Cheshire will see its bills increase by 353% this winter, from £9,700 to £44,000.
The museum’s chair of trustees, Diana Leitch, said news of the increase had come as an unwelcome shock just a week after new CEO, Lee Juby, started in his role.
“On 8 August [Juby] rang to say that a letter had arrived informing us of the costs of our gas supply at Catalyst with our current contractor for the period from 1 October 2022 onwards.
“I think both of us were in disbelief as the price we were paying for the current year to the end of September 2022 had risen from £9,700 to a predicted £48,000, a 400% increase. He immediately started to look for alternative suppliers, which proved to be very difficult, and by 15 August the predicted costs for the new year had risen to £54,000, a 460% increase.”
The museum has since signed a new contract with a different supplier at £44,000 for the coming year, a 353% increase on its previous rate.
“We are now looking at how we can reduce our gas usage, which is used to heat the building and operate the kitchen in our café, and put in other management controls,” said Leitch.
Another museum in north-east England says its utility bills have doubled in the past year.
“We are facing a bleak reality of that potentially doubling again by this time next year,” said a museum representative, who wished to remain anonymous.
Museums and galleries are vulnerable to price rises as they often have high fixed energy costs around collections care, while also having to manage energy-inefficient, listed buildings.
“As well as facing leaky roofing, which makes heating the space extremely inefficient, measures that could be implemented quickly such as double glazing, new more efficient radiators, lowering ceilings are all unavailable to us,” said the museum worker.
“We know the building is very inefficient but our options to address this feel really limited and it’s so difficult to find any advice. This is compounded by the space being a source of income for us through hosting external events, which means we have to ensure it is warm for clients.”
The worker said the museum needed “proper bespoke advice” on how to improve the sustainability of the building: “We need someone to come and see our building and provide us with advice. None of us are experts in this field, we’re doing our best but we simply don’t know where to focus our limited resources to make the most impact.
“We would love to safeguard the future of our heritage building and the museum through better energy efficiency, but we need help to do so and currently the future feels quite scary.”
Sector bodies are urgently calling on the government for more support to help museums reduce costs and implement energy-saving measures.
The Museums Association’s policy manager Alistair Brown said: “The energy bill hikes that museums are facing are eye-watering and for many, completely unaffordable. Museum leaders across the country are asking how they are supposed to meet these costs.
“Without additional government intervention, organisations will have to make difficult decisions about whether to close for the winter, cut opening hours, or cut other areas of activity simply in order to afford their energy bills.
“We want to see concerted action from government – as we saw during the Covid crisis – to help reduce the sudden shock of these huge bills.”