Regional museums - go find a footballer
November 24 2015
Art dealers Ivor Braka and Thomas Dane have donated six works of contemporary art to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester - and have made some interesting comments in doing so. We are regularly told that there is no prospect of regional museums turning to local sources of private giving to help cover and state funding shortfall - apparently this can only happen in London. But not so, say Braka and Dane, and we need to be more ambitious in seeking new sources of giving:
"In America, pretty much every major city - Detroit, St Louis, Chicago, Dallas, Forth Worth, Houston, LA, San Francisco, Seattle - they all have museums which could virtually be national museums in terms of their scope and their quality.
"This situation just doesn't happen in England and there are very few museums that have got the ambition to emulate that sort of level of excellence." [...]
Donors will only have confidence to give to galleries if their buildings are up to scratch, he said. "Coming from Manchester, I knew that one day I always wanted to do something for Manchester.
"I didn't want to give until I was secure that the gift would be well looked after, and I didn't feel that the Whitworth in its old guise was a place would have necessarily given to.
"But having seen the new development and specifically its storage facility, you know that what you give to them is going to be well looked after. You'd be confident that in 200 years time it will be in good condition.
"And the gallery space is magnificent at the Whitworth - it's no accident that it won museum of the year."
There has not traditionally been the same culture of giving among wealthy individuals in the UK as there is in the US, Mr Braka added.
"There is a lot of money out there in Manchester - a lot of inherited wealth and self-made entrepreneurs, and you've got Manchester City and Manchester United footballers as well.
"I don't know whether they need to come to the museum or maybe there's just not been enough outreach in England to try and target people to take an interest ion the visual cultural life."
That said, we clearly need to do something about the patchiness of local government funding for regional museums. It seems to me that the model is no longer working, and some great museums with ambitious staff are left at the mercy of councillors who wouldn't know what an art gallery was if it hit them in the face. When I was last asked to look into all this by the Conservatives, as part of Sir John Tusa's 'Arts Taskforce', we decided that a relatively simple fix would be to put museum provision on the same statutory basis as library provision - in other words, there would be a legal obligation for councils to provide an adequate level of museum funding. But this has not happened.
Is it time for a more radical suggestion? It would seem clear that the major national and London galleries have coped well with the (somewhat forced) need to raise more money from private sources. Many of them, despite 'the cuts', are better off than ever before. They have been motivated to go anb shake the tin with new vigour, and have done a great job. So - should we therefore redistribute some of the money previously available to national museums, and send it out to the regions? This would, in effect, be a sort of nationalisation of regional museums, but at least it might work.
And we should also think of other more innovative solutions too. I'd like to see, for example, the better off national museums form partnerships with regional museums, to share everything from expertise to collections.
Update - the Spending Review will be announced tomorrow, with Labour predicting a 30% cut for DCMS.
Update II - a reader writes:
Given what has been happening to libraries lately, I'm not sure that would have constituted a vast improvement on the current position.
The lack of donors surely also relates to what you have previously said about the likelihood of one's donation ending up unseen in a dank Victorian basement or, still worse, sold off to finance some other project....
True - library provision is indeed patchy, but generally it's better protected from councillor's whims than museum provision.
By the way - another reason to live in Edinburgh (for which I'm an evangelical advocate) is that it has one of the best public art libraries in the country. You can borrow from it too.