Weston Loan Programme: Building ambition through borrowing

National Portrait Gallery
National Portrait Gallery, one of the previous participants in the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.

As a new funding round opens, senior programme manager Penny Bull outlines the potential of the Weston Loan Programme to help museums develop their profile by borrowing from national collections.

The Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund launched in 2017 to respond to the gaps in funding for museums and galleries across the UK to borrow from the national collections.

There were already initiatives designed to support loans from particular national institutions (e.g. the British Museum’s Getting ‘Loan Ready’ programme), and there was funding for museums in particular areas to develop the infrastructure needed to take a national loan (such as Arts Council England’s 'Ready to Borrow' programme), but there was seemingly nothing available to all UK museums to borrow from any national collection.

Enter the Weston Loan Programme, generously supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation and stemming from an idea of their trustee Sophia Weston. Both Art Fund and the Garfield Weston Foundation recognised the value of national collections being shared more widely across the UK, but acknowledged that lack of funding was a barrier. After three successful years, the programme has now entered its second phase and still aims to support curators in museums to pursue ambitious exhibitions that would benefit significantly from the inclusion of a key piece from a major collection.

The 36 projects supported through the Weston Loan Programme so far show that, when done well, sharing collections can raise the profile of the borrowing museum, bolster curatorial and institutional skills, and strengthen the health and vitality of the sector overall.

For example, Nantgarw China Works Museum near Cardiff used its funding to improve the physical security of the building, acquire high-specification cases and promote the exhibition of loans from Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales through interpretation and marketing. At the close of the Coming Home exhibition, visitor figures were up 372% on the same period in the previous year, and the museum had seen an increase of 242% in retail sales and 36% in donations. At Cannon Hall Museum in Barnsley, 70% of visitors to the exhibition A Dutch Golden Age: Painters, People and Places in the 17th Century rated it as ‘Very Good’ (the highest category), and the same proportion said they would be extremely likely to recommend a visit to friends and family.

Enabling more people to see objects from the UK’s public collections is undeniably a good thing, particularly in the current climate. It means that visitors don’t need to travel vast distances to see and learn from the outstanding cultural objects we are privileged to have here in the UK, making our shared national collection truly national.

However, the process of managing a significant loan is costly and time consuming, both for the borrower and lender. Identifying potential objects, submitting a formal loan request and agreeing the loan can take up to a year to complete. The borrower must also find the resources to pack, transport and install the work, then de-install and return it at the end of the exhibition. For curators who are already at capacity and experiencing severe funding cuts, a loan project can still seem like a daunting prospect. This is made worse by the uncertainties caused by the pandemic, particularly in terms of exhibition-making, as reported in published earlier this year.

So, if we can agree that it is important that museums across the UK are able to borrow significant works from the national collections, we must also appreciate that they need continued external support to do so. A difficult financial landscape has been greatly worsened by the pandemic, and priorities have understandably changed. We therefore very much welcome the return of the Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants programme, which can support lending and borrowing activity in England and Wales. To complement this we’re pleased to be able to offer a funding programme focused specifically on borrowing and open to museums across the UK, that will help to encourage visitors back through the doors, and in turn make sure that all people can experience the exceptional objects in the permanent collections of our cultural institutions.

The Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund will continue for a further three years. It still aims to help museums and galleries secure important, strategic loans, but has been expanded in this next phase to include objects from the major regional collections, as well as from the nationals. Applicants can request funding to cover a range of costs associated with borrowing works, from preparing and transporting pieces to managing various administrative tasks. Crucially, the funding can also help the borrowing museums to maximise on opportunities around the loan, specifically within the context of their own collections and communities. This could include presentation and marketing costs, audience engagement, or whatever else makes most sense for the individual museum.

We hope this programme will empower museums of all sizes to develop ambitious loan and exhibition proposals for the benefit of their visitors, their staff and volunteers, and their collections. As Lynda Powell, Director of The Green Howards Museum in Richmond commented, ‘It was a great journey… We now have all of the "nuts and bolts" in place to be able to borrow again and a team that knows how the process works‘. Applications are welcomed until midnight on 6 November 2020, and we’d encourage you to get in touch with us to discuss a potential proposal for funding.

Are your sure you want to leave checkout?