There have been some nicely provocative blogs in response to straightened times, prompted by the doom of a harsh budget and the prospect of an even graver Comprehensive Spending Review in October. They range from Bridget Mackenzie’s assertion that the notion of a Big Society is meaningless outside of a context of climate change and Transition, to Nick Poole’s ideas around for venture funding for culture.. The new Government’s advice for the cultural sector response has been to encourage philanthropy and greater entrepreneurialism. Fine if you’re if you’re in London and dealing with the glamour of palaces, fine and decorative art, not so easy if you’re in the provinces and your stock in trade is grass roots endeavour with the community and a few tourists
Like most people running small to medium cultural organisations I’m searching for that elusive silver bullet that will enable MEAL to be austerity-proof. It’s easy to interpret the ills of the current cultural landscape (over-reliance on public subsidy, too may targets) but, to paraphrase – the point is to change it. To me, museums should concentrate their minds on pressing for cultural and organisational change and influencing the rules of engagement in the funding game.
Despite the unprecedented investment in the museum sector especially through the Renaissance in the Regions programme, there has been little evidence of a fundamental alteration in how a museum behaves. Investment has been geared towards sustaining assets, i.e. buildings and collections, on a command and control basis with activities (however creative they may be) accountable to centralised targets. The ‘Hub’ system created a publicly funded museum cartels with ‘trickle down’ enabled through largesse rather than through obligation. Only now with the Renaissance programme under threat have its major beneficiaries sought to establish more creative collaborations.
Future investment, if there is to be any, should be more like social venture capital, open to all, aimed at rewarding entrepreneurialism but prioritising the needs and desires of users. For example, why should a high-performing learning team from one museum not be able to bid to run activities in another where services are perceived to be poor?
For social entrepreneurs to thrive we need a social market. The majority of museums are not businesses. They might hold and maintain assets and provide goods and services but very few make a profit. The ‘market place’ is saturated by too many museums, too close to each other, funded to provided the same services. We still have a monolithic model of service delivery (and this is regardless of collections or the governance structure) in that most organisation will have learning, collections and visitor services teams.
Some form of consolidation in the sector is inevitable. Mergers and acquisitions should occur not just to make museums more economically viable but to enable stronger and more competitive organisations. Challenge Funding should be just that, encouraging innovation and cultural change. One organisation should be entitled to pitch for funding to deliver services in another’s patch using their collections. An understanding that ownership of assets for public benefit should not be a barrier to use by others, should encourage collaboration and co-operation.
Last week I had a conversation with the director of a major foundation that had just awarded MEAL a tidy sum to support the Abbot’s Hall development. He opined that we use the money to help ‘sweat our assets’. The value of physical assets is usually the largest line on museums budget sheet, but strengthening them is frequently a lower priority than developing new work. Research being carried out in Mission Money Models’ Capital Matters programme (of which MEAL is part) shows that virtually all small and medium sized cultural organisations are asset rich and cash poor. However, as noted in Artscounsel’s blog, invariably both public investment and the energy of an organisation is geared to carrying out new activity, rather than investing in long-term development of assets, products and services.
Over the last two years at MEAL we’ve spent much time developing services to ‘sell’ to commissioning bodies in areas such as skills development for vulnerable adults and therapeutic placements for mental health service users. These activities benefit the community and the MEAL bottom line. Diversifying how we use our assets has made think more clearly about how we become more financially sustainable. For example, if we were to double our visitor numbers in a year (highly unlikely) it would bring the museum an extra £70,000. Our training programmes using existing physical assets staff and community networks provide an income of £60,000 a year. In the past as good museum people we would have seen more ‘bums on seats’ as the only measure of success and would probably led to a more populist approach at programming (vintage car rallies really pull in the crowds but are light years away from our mission). By prioritising investment in asset and by dint community development the museum has experienced relative growth.
There is no silver bullet to make museums sustainable especially when they have been so dependent on public subsidy. However, by encouraging that subsidy to be transparently distributed in more meritocratic fashion and by asking really fundamental questions about how assets are exploited museums might be better equipped to help themselves.