Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts

This post is nothing about Greeks, Elgin/Parthenon Marbles, or anything else controversial like that. Phew - good thing I got that out of the way early on. No, this is to do with a report in the current edition of Museums Journal about reaction to a speech made by the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, at the Tate Gallery last month.

Let me stop here for a moment and provide some background for American readers. The shadow chancellor is not (necessarily) a sinister figure from the realm of Mordor. In UK politics, it is the title of the person in the main opposition party who is responsible for finance issues. The expectation is that, in the event that the opposition gets elected, this person becomes Chancellor and responsible for the country's finances.

With a general election coming up sometime in the next 4 or 5 months and a deeply unpopular Labour government in power, there's a good chance that Osborne may be holding the national purse-strings come May. This means that any remarks he makes about the arts and museum sector are guaranteed to be the subject of hot discussion (as MJ puts it) by the cultural world.

George Osborne is a member of the Conservative Party, a.k.a. the Tories. You remember the Tories, right? Millions of unemployed, BSE, Westland, privatized utilities, Black Wednesday, massive cuts in public spending, collapsing National Health Service, the Poll Tax? Well plainly many of my fellow countrymen don't, because they are about to vote them back into power.

Osborne's speech has attracted much attention from cultural institutions, mostly because he actually made a speech about cultural institutions. It's not that Tories don't like "culture" (although their tastes tend to lie towards Shakespear, Edward Elgar, and Constable); it's just that they don't like paying for anything that doesn't make money. The last time they were in power they put huge pressure on national museums to introduce admission charges at the national museums; while the impact of these charges on attendance is complex (some saw increased visitorship, others saw it drop by up to 50%) it was clear at the time that many directors welcomed the opportunity to charge. Why? Maybe it had something to do with the machete that the Tories had taken to public funding for museums.

These are the same directors that are welcoming the big change proposed by Osborne, namely the relaxation of financial rules for national museums (which are classed as non-departmental public bodies and as such subject to a bunch of restrictions) to allow them to generate additional private income and, in the case of the larger museums, to set up their own endowments. OK, there are good arguments for being the keeper of your own finances - flexibility, creativity, etc. But that's not what this is about. George Osborne wants UK national museums to raise private funds so that he can cut the money they get from the government. Duh!

The great thing about giving museums more responsibility for fundraising is that they become responsible for any inability to raise funds. Bear in mind that the UK is not the USA. The tradition of large-scale public philanthropy is nowhere near as well-developed. I didn't notice much talk from Osborne about the major tax incentives that he would be providing to donors. If he did, MJ wasn't reporting on it.

Even the big institutions are likely to face an uphill struggle to raise funds and build endowments, especially in the current financial climate. That same financial climate makes it unlikely that a Conservative Government will delay making cuts until there is a healthy private funding base. And while I don't have a crystal ball, it also seems unlikely based on past experience that the Tories will bail out any museum that is struggling to raise funds. They are more likely to shrug and say that this is just the necessary flip-side to more financial freedom.

Another familiar theme emerging from the Conservatives is "war on waste," in this case the administrative costs of the public funding bodies that support cultural institutions in the UK, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage. Once again, the drive to do this is not ensuring that as much money as possible reaches the arts; it's just a rationale for more budget cuts. My guess (and it is just a guess) is that reductions in public funding made by a future Conservative government will far exceed any savings generated by more efficient administration.

It's not that I think the ideas that Osborne is proposing - endowments, more use of matching funds from sponsorship, more efficient administration - are bad ideas. I'm just doubtful how effective they will be in the short term (and maybe even the longer term) and I am certain that the motivating factor is not generating more money for the arts - it's cutting the money they receive from the government, while at the same time making it the cultural institutions' fault if the arts suffer. Those of you with long memories will remember that this is the tactic that the Conservatives used in the 1980s and 90s to explain collapsing NHS and local council services; "it's not our cuts, it's their wastefulness/inefficiency, etc."

As with many things on this blog, this boils down to a question of responsibility. The Tories are great believers in the concept of individual responsibility - Margaret Thatcher, of course, famously believed that there was no such thing as "society" - which is one reason why public services fared so badly under previous Conservative administrations. One of the most remarked portions of Osborne's speech was his statement that art matters for its own sake; we don't visit cultural institutions because of their contribution to economic and social goals. I would throw that statement right back and say that this is the reason why society needs to pay for art, and why a responsible government needs to support it rather than finding new and creative ways to dump its responsibilities on the private sector.

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