Mixed fortunes for art in the UK’s regions

Posted on: June 6, 2019 by

“Interesting and challenging times” was how the UK Museums Association Director, Sharon Heal, described the current climate for the sector in her introduction to the Association’s Annual Report last year. No more acutely are those challenges felt than by the UK’s regional museums, many of which are run by local authorities. Over half of these institutions experienced a decrease in regular public income for the financial year 2016/17, and local authority funding of museums has declined by almost a third since 2010 according to Department of Communities and Local Government figures. A rueful comment from a local authority museum in the South of England that “[T]he council has to find more cuts this year… The museum has been asked to save 20% of its running costs” is, sadly, par for the course in these times of seemingly unending austerity.

The effect of the cuts becomes ever more apparent. In March this year, we reported on the loss of four curator posts at Leicester City Museum, apparently prompted by a £320,000 cut in the council’s arts budget for the next financial year. In the same month, the first of a series of planned sales by Hertfordshire County Council of over 400 works of art including those by Barbara Hepworth and John Tunnard took place. The sales have raised much-needed funds for the Council’s coffers but have also raised eyebrows on a number of counts. Sales of art collections from local authorities – bodies generally considered responsible for looking after them for the public benefit – are rarely less than controversial, as was the case here, with online petitions and letters of protest from well-known artists. What the Council hadn’t bargained for, though, was yet further embarrassment in the form of irregularities surrounding the auction sale itself, which saw a number of lots put on hold after ‘suspicious behaviour’ was displayed by an online bidder. The Council said that it was undertaking investigations and it seems that the issue was resolved, as the final of the series of three sales was able to proceed on 23rd May. It was reported that the total proceeds from all sales amounted to just under £470,000.

There is no denying the gloom that has descended over the past decade on the regional museum sector which has seen the loss of funds, staff, collections, audiences and indeed many museums themselves. While the precise number of closures over recent years is a matter of debate, one study which published its preliminary results online in 2018 suggested that around 200 museums have closed across the UK since 2010. (The data was collected from a wider cohort of institutions than those routinely surveyed by the Museums Association whose 2017 report cites ‘at least 64’ closures over the same period).

Thankfully, it is not all bad news, though. In a few weeks’ time, the Art Fund will announce its ‘Museum of the Year’ and it is heartening to see a number of regional museums shortlisted for the award. These include Scotland’s V&A Dundee, St Fagan’s in Wales and Nottingham Contemporary. In another boost for the regions, the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Coming Home’ initiative involves loans of fifty portraits of iconic individuals to places across the country with which they are most closely associated. Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of William Wilberforce, the famous British anti-slavery campaigner, will be exhibited in Hull where he was born, David Hockney’s Self-Portrait with Charlie will go on display in the artist’s hometown of Bradford and Tracey Emin’s Death Mask will spend some time in Emin’s hometown of Margate. New Walk Museum in Leicester will receive a sixteenth century portrait of Richard III (whose remains were discovered in the city and reinterred in Leicester Cathedral in 2015) – no doubt a very welcome silver lining around the rather dark cloud hanging over the city’s cultural sector following news of the recent staff cuts.

Innovative projects of this nature which involve creative thinking and perhaps a higher degree of risk than the sector is traditionally comfortable with are crucially important for the health and the sustainability of the UK’s regional museums. This next, and final story (one of my personal favourites from the past few weeks, and with very grateful thanks to Lilian Palmer for alerting us to it) exemplifies that spirit perfectly. In a wonderful and highly forward-thinking project, the National Gallery has sent on tour its recently acquired Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi – not to another National, nor to a long-standing regional establishment, but to…a women’s library, a girls school, a GP’s surgery and a prison for high-risk female offenders. May this inspiring initiative encourage more institutions to ‘think outside the box’ in an effort to reach beyond traditional formats for exhibitions and audiences for art.

Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, public domain via Wikimedia Commons