Regional arts funding: Building a national collection

The Art Fund's Director, Stephen Deuchar, responds to media reports about the dearth of regional arts funding, and explains how the UK's best-known museums are lending a hand to smaller venues.

In recent months, several media reports have pointed out that museums in major UK cities are receiving the lion’s share of national arts funding. In October the BBC reported, unsurprisingly, a London bias in funding, with Arts Council England chair Sir Peter Bazalgette admitting that ‘more should be done’ for the regions. And last week, Conservative MP Jesse Norman wrote in the Telegraph that ‘the effect of these trends has been to choke off access to the arts for those in the regions’.

But while it is certainly true that museums in major cities receive more funding than those in smaller towns (reflecting the number of visitors rather than the population), the big museums are not themselves the oppressors. Indeed these days the national museums no longer see themselves as lone wolves, carers only of their own collections. Instead, they subscribe to the idea of contributing to and supporting a much larger, richer and truly national collection.

A number of initiatives spread the cultural wealth. Artist Rooms, for example, the sequence of touring exhibitions drawing on the important collection works of post-war and contemporary art part-gifted by Anthony d’Offay to Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, is now in its sixth year. So far it has reached 2.4 million visitors in over 60 museums outside the national capitals, and we’re proud to be a supporter. And the launch last week of Jeremy Deller’s English Magic exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow is the start of the first-ever national tour of a show originally commissioned by the British Council’s for the Venice Biennale, again supported by the Art Fund.

Meanwhile, the annual Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year celebrates and rewards museums across the UK regardless of their location. The most recent winners of the Prize, Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum (pictured) and Walthamstow’s William Morris Gallery, showed that smaller museums can compete healthily with the nationals. And when the British Museum won in 2011, it used the £100,000 prize to fund its support of other venues across the country.

The UK’s best-known museums are doing more than ever to support smaller venues, despite the difficult financial environment. Yes, regional museums need much more support from government at both national and local level, and the Art Fund will continue to lobby to this end. But let us also salute the efforts of their national partners, and enjoy the enlightened sight today of museums big and small working together, in the national interest.

A version of this blog appeared in the Telegraph's Letters page on Thursday 23 January.

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