Just like Rome

Just like Rome

Just like Rome’s Colosseum, London’s Coliseum, the home of the much-respected English National Opera (ENO), would seem to be on the way to ruin following the Arts Council’s arguably perverse decision to cut its grant to nil for the next three years. The ENO is not alone in being adversely affected by the Art’s Council’s decision-making around its funding round for 2023-2026 as it has sought to distribute its funding more evenly around the country as part of the Government’s levelling-up policy. But while there have been losses from its list of National Portfolio Organisations, there have also been gains.

There have been new museum service additions to the NPO list. Twenty-eight mainly urban organisations have been newly added to the Arts Council’s portfolio, including Bradford Museums & Galleries, Rotherham Museums, Arts & Heritage, and Kirklees Museums in Yorkshire, the National Football Museum in Manchester, St Albans Museums in Hertfordshire, Blackburn Museum & Gallery in Lancashire and Jarrow Hall in Tyne and Wear. London’s Postal Museum, the Garden Museum and Gunnersbury Park Museum and museum services run by North Devon Council and West Northamptonshire Council have also been made NPOs.

But careful analysis by colleagues at Fourth Street show that when all those museums that have now lost their funding are brought into the picture, museums as a category within the NPO framework have virtually stood still in terms of funding in comparison with all the other ‘art forms’ that the Arts Council supports i.e. visual arts, theatre, dance, music, combined arts, literature and libraries.

All organisations aiming to continue being or becoming Arts Council National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) are assessed against the Arts Council’s criteria for financial support enshrined in the Council’s 10-year strategy, Let’s Create, published two years ago. These are artistic excellence, inclusivity and relevance, dynamism and environmental responsibility. The Arts Council explains that the criterion of inclusivity and relevance means that ‘England’s diversity is fully reflected’ in an organisation’s staffing, work and audience. This is a laudable aim in principle, but in practice those organisations which are in locations where England’s diversity is not fully reflected in demographic terms e.g. rural areas are likely to struggle to achieve it and be penalised as a result (for more information, see Museum Development England Annual Museum Survey 2021: National Report). When coupled with the difficulties of achieving ‘artistic excellence’ where the organisation is a museum concerned for example with scientific, technology, engineering, computing, industrial or military subjects, it is perhaps unsurprising that museums have not fared well in the latest round. One example which demonstrates the point is Dorset’s Tank Museum which has lost its previous NPO status in this current funding round.

The lack of a sector-specific development agency representing museums is becoming increasingly apparent, especially when one looks over the border at the success of the highly respected Museums Galleries Scotland, the development agency for museums and allied organisations in Scotland. The dissolution of the former Museums and Galleries Commission and the network of membership-based Area Museum Councils and the transfer of museums responsibility to the Arts Council has meant that museums inevitably find themselves having to conform to a contemporary arts agenda rather than a heritage agenda. There is no doubt that the Arts Council and its museum development network at regional level have worked hard to support museums, and there is no doubt that a number of museums have been able to deliver some exciting and innovative work in line with the Arts Council’s expectations of its NPOs. But, for many museums and the Tank Museum is but one example, the fit with the Arts Council’s contemporary arts remit and its direction of travel enshrined in Let’s Create is uncomfortable.

Is there an alternative?

The vast majority of museums in the UK and their collections are concerned with the heritage, be that international, national, regional or local. The one body that has been singularly supportive of museums and their work in the last twenty-five years or so is the UK National Lottery Heritage Fund. Yet, despite its far-reaching role and its undoubted success in helping to raise sectoral standards, the NLHF is not formally a development agency like the Arts Council - that it is to say that it does not have revenue clients in a national portfolio. Could the NLHF be transformed into the development agency for the heritage and museums sector in England? Could Arts Council funding currently being directed to NPO museums be transferred to the NLHF? And could the Arts Council’s regional network of museum development offices be read across in the same way?

It will be interesting to see how the next three years of NPO funding work for the museums sector as a whole and how the sector benefits from the objectives of Let’s Create in comparison to the art forms the Arts Council has traditionally supported. If this year’s decisions are anything to go by, the museums sector needs to look hard at how it might be best represented for the future.

Photo credit: Colin / CC BY-SA 4.0

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