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July 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1456

Essential arts

Cuts, cuts, cuts: this seems to be the endless refrain that attends any discussion of the arts in the United Kingdom. On the one hand many recognise the profound benefits to a civilised society of a vibrant cultural sector; however, the reality is increasingly characterised in certain areas by a woeful lack of investment, a crumbling infrastructure and the loss of skills and expertise. Such issues are often explored in the press and have been aired in the past in the Editorials of this Magazine. However, the current situation appears to have a different, urgent and especially worrying dimension. 

The challenges are particularly acute outside London in the context of a number of large councils, where sweeping cuts have been announced over the last year. This is not the place to explore the reasons for this, but it is appropriate to highlight here the potentially deeply damaging and long-term consequences for the visual arts. The authorities concerned have issued what is called a ‘section 114’ notice, which means in simple terms that no commitment can be made to new spending and only key services are supported from that point onwards. In this troubling world, the arts are often not considered essential and, to compound the concerns this prompts, councils are under such circumstances able to sell off some assets in order to assist with meeting their responsibilities; such actions would probably focus on buildings or land, but commentators have speculated about whether collections might be considered. In addition, the spectre of imposing admission charges for previously freely accessible local, regional and national collections has once again raised its ugly head in the public debates about these challenges. Whenever such possibilities are aired they seem to be poorly justified and ignore the wonderful social and educational benefits that accrue from free access – a golden thread that runs back through the history of British museums and galleries to the nineteenth century. Art free at the point of delivery (to redeploy a phrase used for the health service) should be a rallying cry for opponents of such proposals. 

It might perhaps be imagined that national collections would, to some degree at least, be insulated from these concerns. This is however not so, as, for example, the recent disturbing news from Cardiff testifies: a substantial reduction in the grant-in-aid along with an annual deficit for the National Museums there may lead to the loss of many jobs and has raised acute concerns about the state of the Museums’ buildings. This is not the prediction of a mischievous journalist, but the view of Jane Richardson, the new Chief Executive of Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales. 

The crisis that such developments are indicative of has been developing for some while and various clarion calls for political action to ameliorate it have had little effect. The advocacy that has been made for greater investment includes the admirable work of the Campaign for the Arts and individual initiatives, such as the debate in the House of Lords that Lord (Melvyn) Bragg led in February.[1] This resulted in a great deal of eloquent testimony about the inspirational, educational and economic benefits that follow from an environment in which the arts flourish. Many of the contributions focused on the performing arts, broadcasting and the ‘creative industries’, but the points made were of course transferable to museums and galleries, as well as the arts and humanities in universities and indeed aspects of the art market. 

More recently, in these heady days leading up to the UK’s general election, when all manner of half-baked promises and competitive claims are being made by political parties, any serious consideration of arts policy and its benefits seems to have been almost wholly absent from public debates. It is, however, the case that a number of manifestos have emerged from other, less partisan bodies, that attempt to shape the views of the political classes. One has been published, which many who are passionate about the arts may well feel able to support – that of the British Academy, the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences. Admirably short, its manifesto encourages the new government, of whatever complexion it may be, to act urgently and confidently to support and utilise the nation’s excellence in the humanities and the arts.[2] There are, it is suggested, three key elements to this process. The first concerns giving a greater commitment to the education system, especially by reviewing higher education funding that is under acute pressure, ensuring school curriculums are broadly based, and welcoming international students. The second area of emphasis focuses on the importance of interdisciplinary research and includes a plea to improve support for museums, libraries and archives. Finally, there is a call to achieve cross-party consensus about the importance of research that transcends national boundaries, in order to maintain a thriving, innovative and beneficial research culture. As part of this last strand it is hoped that the UK would offer sanctuary for researchers at risk around the world, as has happened in relation to Ukraine. Such policies, if enacted reasonably quickly by the next parliament, would go a long way to improve the current malaise. 

In the interests of sketching a balanced picture of the current state of arts funding it should be noted that amid all the grim predictions there are some glimmers of hope to be seen. A couple of months ago in the Spring Budget the Museums and Galleries Exhibition Tax relief (MGETR) was given permanent status (it was due to end in April). This sounds like a profoundly boring initiative, but the benefits that have resulted from it have been significant; it is a mechanism that reduces considerably the costs connected with mounting exhibitions, especially those that tour. 

Meanwhile, other rays of sunshine can be spotted: the Clore Duffield Foundation has just celebrated its sixtieth anniversary with news of a further £30 million worth of grants that will benefit arts education projects across the country. The Art Fund’s Museum of the Year competition, which champions inspiring projects that focus on community engagement, has published its shortlist of entries. Three UK museums have also been shortlisted for the 2024 European Museum of the Year Award. And, finally, Scotland’s new Perth Museum has opened, following a £26.5 million redevelopment of Perth City Hall, to positive reviews. The Financial Times called it ‘a free museum which is a generous and genuine civic building that is open, accessible and absolutely stuffed with wondrous things’. The wondrous things inside include the Caravaggesque Christ first published in this Magazine in 2009.[3] 

[1] For more information, see, accessed 13th June 2024. 

[2] British Academy: ‘A manifesto for the Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts’, available at humanities-arts, accessed 13th June 2024. 

[3] J. Gash: ‘A Caravaggesque “Christ” in Scotland’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 151 (2009), pp.682–90.