Director's Blog

Looking forward to new ways of working

  • Published 13 March 2017
Dr Stephen Deuchar

A full-scale Museums Review, the late awards from the Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund, and new directors at both Tate and the V&A – the start of spring augurs well for the arts, writes Stephen Deuchar

DCMS Museums Review

Following former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey’s 2016 White Paper – which turned out to be more or less his parting contribution to the arts – the Department for Culture, Media and Sport impressively launched a full-scale Museums Review in order to, as they put it, ‘gain a deeper understanding of the sector, the issues it faces and how it can best be supported by government’.

In particular, the review aims to ‘cover increasing and diversifying participation, developing local communities, supporting soft power, and creating a resilient museums sector’. These objectives are to be applauded, and with DCMS non-executive director Neil Mendoza at the helm, advised by former English Heritage chief executive Simon Thurley and assisted by a broadly based review team, there is every reason to hope that the report will be both visionary and practical in its observations and recommendations – unlike, it must be said, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council’s (MLA’s) 2009 ‘Leading Museums: a vision and strategic action plan for England’s museums’ which was read in a few quarters with respectful interest but never actually implemented.

By contrast, both the brief for and scope of the new initiative are encouraging. The list of institutions being consulted includes bodies as diverse as Art Fund and the Ministry of Defence. And there is a stated determination to interrogate with the help of fresh input some very big questions indeed: how to deal with museums in difficulty; the responsibilities of Local Authorities; how to incentivise new funding models; whether national museums’ responsibilities to the wider museum sector could be made more specific; how to ensure collections, expertise and buildings remain world class; how to ensure that cultural sectors contribute to local economies, health and wellbeing across society.

Art Fund has submitted its detailed thoughts on some of these matters, in many instances seeking to reintroduce a focus on issues that the White Paper itself had side-stepped – as lamented by our chairman in the summer 2016 issue of Art Quarterly. These include priorities as wide-ranging as the need to nurture art education and creative liaison with museums across our schools and universities, and as specific as the long-needed improvements to the art-export review process, for which Art Fund has, of course, campaigned for many years.

On this last point there now seems, at last, to be a real prospect that our calls for reform may be answered in the form of another, separate government review later this year, looking into the options for change. If this, like the commissioning of the wider Museums Review itself, is a sign of the new DCMS’s determination to think boldly and laterally from time to time, I view the prospects for our sector in 2017 with renewed optimism.

Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund

The Review’s question about ‘how to incentivise new funding models’ was implicitly answered in part by the DCMS itself in January, with the announcement of the latest round of awards from the Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund, an exemplary collaboration between public and private funders which since its relaunch in 2000 has delivered £44m to 382 UK museums.

Driven from the outset by the Wolfson Foundation, the scheme represents the evolution of the Foundation’s museum capital grant programme, which was established in the 1970s. It was a particular passion of late chair Leonard Wolfson – Lord Wolfson of Marylebone – and in the pre-Lottery era was a lifeline to many a major museum struggling to extract sufficient resources from government to deal with their often dilapidated historic buildings. Lord Wolfson’s suggestion to the DCMS in 2000 that if the foundation’s grants in this area were to extend beyond the major museums they would need to be matched pound for pound by government was clever and persuasive, and the new scheme was duly born.

The 2017 grants – £4m in awards to 39 museums – are imaginative and diverse in scope: a redisplay of the Folk Art collection at Compton Verney; a refurbishment of the Ancient Egyptian Gallery for Leicester’s Arts and Museum Services; improvements to Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery; the expansion of the permanent galleries at the National Football Museum, and better lighting at the Wallace Collection, amongst much else.

Though from the government’s point of view an innovative partnership, the foundation is itself no stranger to such ways of working. Indeed, in 2017 Art Fund is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its own collaboration with the Wolfson Foundation. The generous annual grants we’ve received from the foundation since 1977 have enabled more than 150 works of art to enter some 50 different public collections, and amongst their number are some of the most celebrated national acquisitions of all: they include Hans Holbein the Younger’s A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling for the National Gallery; the Staffordshire Hoard (the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found on British soil) for Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke; Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus for the Ashmolean, and the commission for Rachel Whiteread’s Tree of Life on the façade of the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

Recently the foundation has also supported our New Collecting Awards programme to help train emerging curators, and we have just begun work together on an initiative to investigate, assess and describe in new ways the value of public art collecting in the 21st century. The Wolfson Foundation’s charitable programme – of which the arts are only part – is based on the principle of delivering measurable social good, and it applies great rigour, imagination and serious resource to all it takes on. It is a model partner.

Congratulations and good luck

The announcement of the appointments of Maria Balshaw and Tristram Hunt to the directorships of Tate and the V&A in January gave rise to much media comment about the challenges and opportunities each face in their role. As these are two of the most famous and celebrated museums in the world, a certain amount of intrusive comment by armchair experts (myself included) was inevitable and probably permissible.

With such a wealth of collections and such a huge visiting public (more than 10 million people between them) the stakes are certainly high. At Art Fund we have had direct experience of working with both individuals: Hunt was deeply involved in the efforts and negotiations to save the Wedgwood Collection, and Balshaw, of course, collected the Museum of the Year Prize in 2015 for the celebrated transformation of the Whitworth, Manchester.

The V&A’s decision is imaginative and full of promise, and the fresh insights of a historian with a real knowledge of the visual arts – not to mention an intimate understanding of the political landscape – will surely be invaluable to an institution embarking on its boldest phase of development yet.

At Tate, Maria Balshaw’s inspirational success in Manchester and her proven impact across the UK arts and museums sector had made her in the eyes of many the clear favourite to succeed Nick Serota, but it is nonetheless heartening that the appointment board selected her from what was no doubt an international field of exceptional talent.

The challenges of guiding these two great international institutions to ever greater heights cannot be overestimated. We offer both new directors our congratulations and wish them luck.

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