Policy & research

Insights from our Museum Directors Research 2024

Visitors at The Box, Plymouth, August 2021

In the fourth edition of Art Fund's Museum Directors Research, we explore what challenges are facing the sector. Two years ago, we saw confidence growing as visitors started to return, but that was tempered by a looming cost of living crisis. Here, we break down 2024's findings, explain what it says about our sector right now, and talk about what Art Fund is doing about it.

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Last year Art Fund marked its 120th anniversary. Since 1903 we’ve helped museums, galleries and historic places across the UK build their collections, open them up for the public, and inspire their audiences. However, it’s the events of the most recent years that have had the biggest impact on the sector, its workforce, its audiences, and its future. 

The publication of our latest Museum Directors Research marks the fourth time since 2020 that we have asked them about the challenges their organisations are facing, current priorities, and explore future opportunities, in their words. This was particularly critical in a general election year, so that we could advocate on their behalf with policymakers and politicians.   

And despite the upheaval and precarity of the past four years there is some good news. It shows that visitor numbers are on the rise, with over half of venues at or above pre-pandemic levels. One of the biggest growth areas has been in learning visits, with teachers and children re-engaging enthusiastically.

And as museums look to the year ahead, we are seeing a determined focus to engage local audiences, and to work alongside them collaboratively, creating meaningful partnerships. This centering on proximate communities speaks to the Directors' commitment to ensure that their institutions creatively serve those who are on their doorstep, who both deserve and need them, and who they were created for in the first instance.  

Our research coincides with a survey we commissioned jointly with the National Museum Directors’ Council (NMDC) which demonstrates how highly the UK public value their museums. Nearly nine in ten UK adults think museums are important to UK culture, with almost half of UK adults visiting museums at least once a year. Three-quarters of UK adults think having a local museum adds value to their area. People love and value their local museums. 

Which brings us to the huge pressure being faced by these local authority reliant organisations – over half of respondents to the Museum Directors survey. These include some of our greatest civic institutions, many founded in the late-Victorian era in the decades leading up to the establishment of Art Fund - with the shared view that art should be accessible to all.

But they are in a perilous and uncertain state. The reality of post-pandemic financial fragility, real term funding cuts, ageing buildings, and increased overheads are placing them under enormous strain. The impact of the cost-of-living crisis on staff and audiences is recognised as the biggest collective challenge facing organisations. Outgoings are just half of the problem; falling income is also a huge worry. Just two years ago half of Museum Directors were concerned about funding shortfalls, that figure is now two thirds. They say they need a 10 – 20% funding increase in funding just to stabilise. 

Despite this difficult context, hope prevails. Museum Directors are thinking imaginatively and ambitiously about how they can use their collections to encourage new people through their doors with programming that speaks to a diversity of voices and experience. There is strength in numbers as more organisations seek to work together on exhibitions. There is acute awareness of a huge opportunity in achieving proper recognition for the work they do in delivering for their communities.  

And at Art Fund we are determined to continue to add value and champion the sector over the coming years. It is thanks to our 135,000 members that we can give financial and wider support to fund art, grow audiences and advocate on behalf of museums. And as well as shaping our own programmes by responding to what’s most needed, we will share the results of this survey with other funders, agencies and government bodies to encourage them to continue to support and sustain the vital work museums undertake daily.

The Art Fund and NMDC survey, mentioned above, also found that nearly half (47%) of all respondents thought museums should be mostly or entirely funded by government, with this figure rising to two-thirds for local museums and local government. In this election year, all parties must take care of these local treasures. Once they are gone, they are lost for ever. 

To that end, and based on what we’ve heard, we’re advocating on some clear policy areas for next government.  

  • Sustainable funding: An enquiry into regional museum funding to address regional disparities and equity of public access. And further tax breaks or relief for museums, alongside ways to promote philanthropy. 

  • Public access to collections: Our nations’ collections must be protected, sustained, promoted – and free to all to access.  

  • Cultural education: Ensure every schoolchild experiences a visit to a museum and gallery every year, within the national curriculum.    

With thanks to Wafer Hadley for undertaking our Museum Directors’ research and to NMDC for partnering on the YouGov Survey. We are also hugely grateful to the museum leaders who gave their time so generously and shared their insights so thoughtfully.

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