Museums are the essence of our communities

  • 2 December 2016
  • By Chris Smith
  • Lord Smith of Finsbury, Art Fund chairman

Informed by conversations with more than 800 institutions across the UK, the Art Fund has been involved in public consultations on the future of the sector, writes Chris Smith.

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

In October I was at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, holding a discussion with its director, Tim Knox, about the history of the Art Fund’s support for the Fitzwilliam and its hopes for the future. The first-ever Art Fund grant to the Fitzwilliam was made in 1912, for 18 pieces of Chinese pottery and porcelain, and the total cost of the pieces was £193.

How things have changed. Nowadays, of course, the prices are eye-wateringly higher. But the same rigorous attention to detail is there, the same wish to support museums nationwide. The 200th anniversary of the Fitzwilliam is now celebrating its best-loved collections, such as the Egyptian coffins donated in 1822, and the illuminated manuscripts and Old Master prints by Dürer, Goltzius and Rembrandt pasted into albums by the museum’s founder, Lord Fitzwilliam.

The same ambitions to build the collection continue today. In fact, earlier this year, we provided a grant of £200,000 towards a total cost of around £1.2 million for two cabinets made in Rome in 1625 and purchased now from Castle Howard in Yorkshire. They are exquisite, and a curator told us about their intricacies and pulled out the secret drawers to reveal the astonishing quality of workmanship that had gone into creating them.

It struck me then how everything that is good and important about the work of our museums and galleries was evident in that moment. The breathtaking range of objects and works on display. The quality of the pieces. The enthusiasm and knowledge of the curators. The links that were being made with other objects on display. The curiosity of the visitors. And the enlightenment mixed with delight that came from engagement with the works of art and with the people who looked after them and cared for them.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of all these things and of how important museums are to that process of enlightenment and delight that takes us all on a journey to new discovery and understanding. It’s more important than ever for us to assert this truth. We need to continue to assert the value and importance of museums to us and our communities. The government has been holding various public consultations that will have an impact on the future of museums, and we (in the Art Fund) have been submitting our views to them informed by our conversations with more than 800 museums and galleries around the country and as a powerful voice for our members and other museum-goers.

The two most important have been a review of Arts Council England and its work, and a review of the future of museums. The Arts Council review will be the first to emerge into the light of day; and of course ACE, taking over a few years back the old responsibilities of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, has become increasingly important for museums and their future. The work of regional and local museums, for example, would have been infinitely poorer were it not for the deployment of innovative ‘Renaissance in the Regions’ funding by the Arts Council.

And now, with the news that Nicholas Serota will be taking over as chair of Arts Council England, the future is exciting. If he can bring the same spirit of knowledge, passion, expertise, vision and courage to his new role as he has to Tate, there is much to be hopeful about. Alongside this the Arts Council England budgets for 2018-22, unveiled in October by the culture minister, Matt Hancock, promise both to protect London and see more allocation to the regions with a £622m a year investment across its National Portfolio Organisations, Grants for the Arts and Culture scheme and strategic funds. They’re making this public money work as hard as possible, while also tackling diversity in the arts and addressing regional funding imbalances and investigating how best to support museums to become more entrepreneurial. Though the economic, social and educational return of investing in culture is proven – as outlined in the government’s white paper on the arts – balancing budgets and mitigating the potential impact of Brexit for the arts and culture will present challenges for the Arts Council. But to have someone in the lead who completely understands the importance of museums is a pretty good start.

And that importance has, I believe, become even more significant following the referendum. These days we are a country in search of what our identity is, striving to make sense of that tension between nation and internationalism that lay at the heart of the discourse about Europe. How fundamental to any exploration of this case of identity is the role that museums play. They show us our history, our narrative, our sense over the centuries of ourselves, and the things that we have valued. They bring it all alive for us. Museums are vital for our future; and that – whether it is direct funding from Government, or the impossibly stretched resources of local government, or the future role of the Arts Councils of England and the other nations, and the growing importance of philanthropists – museums are part of the essence of our communities and our lives.

Let’s hope those reviews articulate that word ‘essential’ when it comes to museums and galleries.

Tags: Art Quarterly