In England the imminent demise of the Museums Libraries and Archives council (MLA)will lead to the absorption of some museum delivery into the Arts Council England (ACE). This means that ACE now has the task of deciding how to implement the next phase of the Renaissance in the Regions programme which has successfully distributed millions of pounds to regional museums since 2004. The hub and spoke principle of funding four to five museums in each region of England from which partnerships with the wider museums community could be established, is to be abandoned. No-one is sure what will replace it.
One proposal mooted by the old MLA is to establish a limited number of ‘core regional museums’ with existing high profile programmes and collections of distinction. These would develop as mini ‘Nationals’ with no obligation to support the wider museum community. Whilst this might suit Tynesiders, Mancunians or people from Birmingham it doesn’t satisfy the needs of audiences outside metropolitan areas or reward smaller organisations who have shown genuine innovation with little or no Renaissance funding.
Arts Council England could do worse than use its existing model of National Portfolio Organisations for the arts to instigate a scheme of National Portfolio Museums. Rather than fund a select few, it should invite a swathe of organisations to apply for Renaissance funding some large, some small, some established some emerging. Similar principles might be set that applied to arts organisations around financial sustainability, governance and management and programming with an additional criterion around quality of collections.
I sit on the board of an arts organisation which although not previously an ACE Regularly Funded Organisation was invited to apply for NPO status. Ultimately it was unsuccessful in its application but the process caused the organisation to critically evaluate its programming, governance and financial resilience and it will be healthier as a result. Rather than just select the largest museums which are by and large solely funded by the public sector, Renaissance funding should be thrown open to competition.
A competitive approach would cause larger museums to seriously test business planning and might open up the market to smaller organisations which have demonstrated invention and impact. Museums like Woodhorn in Northumberland and MEAL has pioneered work in social enterprise and impact measurement, well-being and sustainability. Whilst they may have garnered plaudits they have received a tiny fraction of Renaissance funding compared to near neighbours. Often these well-funded organisations have sought advice from the likes of us on how to set up their own businesses (we have charged consultancy fees but it’s not the same!).
If there is a genuine desire to create a financially resilient museum sector which is diverse and creative in using its assets to greatest public benefit, then the creation of an open and competitive process to distribute Renaissance funding would be a start.