Standing still is not a sensible tactic in these uncertain times - Museums Association

Standing still is not a sensible tactic in these uncertain times

Our sector is at its best when it’s striving at new frontiers and finding new ways to astound audiences, says Kully Thiarai
Covid-19 Cultural value Cuts
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Kully Thiarai

We live in uncertain times but these are the only times we have. Managing uncertainty has played a key part in my role as creative director and CEO of Leeds 2023 since I started in January 2020, just 10 weeks before the global pandemic created seismic shifts and trauma in all our lives.

Austerity, Covid-19, Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis have all had massive impacts on every aspect of our lives and the cultural sector has not been immune. Recruitment is challenging, audiences are cautious, high energy prices and general cost of living are creating issues for all parts of the economy. Public behaviour has changed in all sorts of ways, and we don’t yet have the understanding to see the pattern in it all- what does it mean for us?

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It is of course a natural instinct in times of crisis to play safe by trying to please your loyal audiences with known work, go for things that have proved hugely successful previously and reduce the risk on the new and the different. But it is clear that in the current landscape there are no sure bets here either. Cultural provision, as a non-statutory service, is hard to protect as local authorities grapple with huge funding pressure on their reduced budgets.

But standing still is not a sensible tactic for a sector that is at its best when it’s striving at new frontiers, new ways of astounding, new ways of making connections.

It has been great to see the long queues for the reopening of Manchester Museum and the enthusiasm towards its new South Asian Gallery. Similarly, Leeds Arts Gallery has seen increased day visitors for its Leeds Art Show – the first in over a decade with over 100 artworks from 90 local artists. The show also introduces the next generation of artists with drawings and paintings by 21 young people from Leeds primary schools. All part of our Year of Culture.


Leeds Royal Armouries too is busy, particularly during holidays and weekends, and numbers are finally beginning to recover mid-week too. Further afield large-scale immersive exhibitions like the Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Monet and recently opened David Hockney shows have proved hugely successful with new audiences. 

As part of our opening event, thousands submitted pieces of art in order to claim tickets and that work is now part of our Waking the Artist exhibition across the city. So, there is clearly an appetite among the public to engage with culture in significant numbers. But how to sustain it in straightened times and with an increasingly exhausted work force?

We are lucky in Leeds in that we have the largest local authority museum service in England and Wales, run by Leeds City Council. With a strong reputation for playing a leading role in developing best practice, their new strategy expresses their vision as: to create deeper connections with the people we serve using the collections and venues we care for, and to widen our impact on the world.

Culture needs proper investment. It is hard to see how we can deliver large scale interventions like immersive new works or develop best practice without it. The process too of participating and creating artistic projects collaboratively with communities can be as transformative for individuals as any large-scale spectacle or event but is no cheap alternative to business as usual.

At their best our cultural organisations play a crucial civic role: a gathering point for individuals to come together and share in a collective experience, a place for knowledge, learning and cultural exchange, somewhere to go and be entertained and feel engaged with the world or even just a warm space for those who need it. There has never been a more important time for us to be at our very best. The times demand it even as they challenge us. We must remain flexible, reactive, and ambitious if we’re to persevere.

Learning how to manage uncertainty is the challenge that will remain with us for some time yet.

Kully Thiarai is the creative director and CEO of Leeds 2023, and will be the keynote speaker at Moving on Up 2023, the Museums Association's one-day careers conference on 23 March

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