Art Fund and Wolfson Foundation publish Why Collect?, a report on museum collecting in the UK

  • 15 February 2018

Written by historian Sir David Cannadine, the new report calls for increased investment in museums and their collections.

Cornelia Parker, The Folkestone Mermaid, 2011, Folkestone Artworks Image courtesy of Creative Foundation and Visit Kent

Cornelia Parker, The Folkestone Mermaid, 2011, Folkestone Artworks

Why Collect? has been commissioned by Art Fund and the Wolfson Foundation to mark 40 years of collaboration in bringing art and objects into public collections, and was launched at Tate Modern today.

The report highlights the ever-widening gap between the spiralling prices of works on the international art market and the limited acquisition funds available to museums and galleries in the UK. It calls for increased investment in museums and their collections, as public spending on museums has decreased by 13% in real terms over the last decade. It is, writes Cannadine, a report that 'instead of giving comfort and reassurance, expresses anxiety and concern.'

Cannadine's analysis of museum and gallery collecting traces its history from the 1830s to the present day and is accompanied by 11 case studies which explore various facets of the social and cultural impact of collecting. This is supported by statistical evidence from a national survey involving 266 collecting institutions. The report was undertaken to address the question of how, why and on what scale publicly funded museums and galleries continue to expand their collections. It includes the following:

Investment in museum collections

  • Cannadine cites the £333m recently paid for Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi, more than half the entire amount that the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and other London-based official bodies allocated to England's museums and galleries in 2016-17.
  • The museums of the UK have experienced a decade of diminished funding: in real terms, public spending on museums and galleries in England has declined by 13%, from £829m in 2007 to £720 10 years later, and the reduction has been greatest in funding provided by local authorities.
  • For those employed in museums 'salary levels are 7% lower than the market average in comparable sectors, rising to 25% below market rate for junior roles in collections and curations management.'

Museum collecting and display

  • Many museums and galleries only display a fraction of their holdings – often less than 10% – and the report references recent arguments for making their stored collections more publicly available. For example, the establishment of the Glasgow Museum Resource Centre, housing around 1.4million objects, and open to the public seven days a week, or the V&A’s new facility for this purpose in east London.
  • The digital revolution has enabled entire collections to be accessed and viewed online and ‘the more that we can learn about collections from exploring them online, the more we are likely to want to go and visit them in situ’.
  • Only half of the 266 UK museums and galleries surveyed, had a specific budget allocation for collecting, and in most cases it was rarely more than 1% of the overall amount that was spent. Although almost all of the respondents had been able to add objects to their collections over the last five years, gifts and bequests were the most frequently used methods. The survey results demonstrated that, except in the case of the national museums, collecting for most museums and galleries is no more than a marginal activity.

Case studies

The impact of new acquisitions of works of art and objects was found to be transformative both for museums and the people visiting them – in many different ways:

  • In the case of Hull, the purchase of Pietro Lorenzetti’s early Renaissance masterpiece Christ between Saints Paul and Peter (c1320) significantly raised the profile of the Ferens Art Gallery and, alongside several high-profile national partnership exhibitions, helped to demonstrate increased confidence and ambition during the lead-in to Hull’s bid to become UK City of Culture in 2017.
  • Glasgow Museums acquired examples of contemporary Indian painted truck backs – examples of Punjabi street art – to engage more closely with the city’s multicultural communities.
  • In Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent the acquisition and display of a locally discovered Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard brought increased visitor numbers and tangible educational and economic benefits to both cities.
  • In Belfast, the Ulster Museum initiated a project to tell an inclusive and diverse story of the Troubles, and acquired artefacts for a dedicated gallery.
  • Tate Modern in London pioneered the collection of performance-based and live action work, facing the inherent practical and financial challenges head-on.

Stephen Deuchar, Director, Art Fund, said: ‘My thanks to Sir David Cannadine for this timely and penetrating report on the state of museum collecting in the UK today. To have a historian of his stature surveying this important area is invaluable. His concerns over the lack of public investment in the growth and care of our nation’s collections, and in the people responsible for them, should be heeded. Museum collections have a demonstrable impact on people’s cultural lives and wellbeing and are thus a vital part of the social fabric of our country.

'Art Fund’s charitable programme – helping museums to build their collections, to share them more widely, and to develop the skills and expertise of their curators – is more needed than ever. We therefore plan to increase our grant giving to £10m a year by 2020. In our determination to see standards rise on all fronts we will also continue to need enlightened partners like the Wolfson Foundation, the developing generosity of private philanthropists, and – crucially – increased public investment in UK museums and their collections for the benefit of everyone.’

Download the full report here

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