British museums particularly suffered during Covid-19

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TTHE NUMBER of visitors to museums around the world collapsed last year. According to an annual survey published by The art journal last month, the largest museums in America, Brazil, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia and Spain – as well as Great Britain – hosted fewer 20% of their usual workforce.

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Many governments were quick to offer their support. Germany, France and Britain have all announced emergency funds of at least £ 1 billion to help their cultural sectors survive the catastrophic loss of income. Even in America, where public funding for cultural institutions is more scarce, the federal government allocated $ 200 million to museums under last year’s Coronavirus Help, Relief and Economic Security Act. But the way UK museums are funded means they have performed particularly poorly.

German museums exist almost entirely through public funding shared by federal and state governments and by individual municipalities, who like to have their own museums, orchestras and opera houses. Last November, the government approved a culture budget of 2.1 billion euros ($ 2.5 billion) for 2021, its highest level ever, and an 8% increase from 2020. Most of the funding for museums in France is also public. Income from donations, sponsorships, entrance fees, restaurants, shops and gallery rentals rarely represents more than 20% of a museum’s total budget.

American museums rely on philanthropy, encouraged by generous tax breaks; and in the donation business there are a lot of takers. Future directors of the Metropolitan Museum must be prepared to donate at least $ 25 million in artwork or cash, according to a former director. An emergency boost for the Met raised $ 25 million last year, and its $ 150 million loss in 2020 is manageable anyway thanks to a $ 3 billion endowment, which benefited from the dynamism of the stock market.

Over the past 20 years, the UK government has reduced state support for culture and encouraged museums, in particular, to become more self-reliant. In 2001, more than three quarters of the British Museum’s budget came from the government. In 2019, only half did. Before the pandemic, Tate Galleries raised £ 2 ($ 2.80) for every book they received in state support. Expensive entrance tickets and catalogs for special exhibitions, restaurants and cafes, shops, conference rooms, and private after-hours gallery parties have all made money.

These are the areas most affected when the doors closed last spring. The Tate only welcomed 600,000 visitors to its four museums last year, up from more than 8 million the year before. Its income from activity fell by 40% over the same period. According to a senior curator, his budget for 2021 is less than half of what it was two years ago. Other museums have done even worse. Almost two-thirds of the revenues of the Victoria & Albert Museum have disappeared, as have almost 90% of the Birmingham Museums Trust and the Royal Collections Trust.

The government is also not prepared to do much to fill the deficit. Announcing the launch of the £ 1.57 billion culture stimulus fund in July 2020, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden boasted: ‘The government is here for culture and we have worked tirelessly to bring this record investment to the forefront. ” At the same time, he wrote to museum directors, urging them to “take as commercial an approach as possible, seizing every opportunity to maximize alternative sources of income.” If they haven’t, he warned, “I won’t be able to advocate for additional financial support for the sector.”

To get by, smaller regional institutions, in Manchester and Birmingham, for example, are flexible about opening hours and handing out small sums of money from a myriad of different sources. Flexibility is more difficult for large museums in London. To plug the hole in its finances, the Royal Collections Trust, which looks after the Queen’s works of art and official residences, and oversees visits to Buckingham Palace when it is open in summer, has taken out a loan bank account of £ 22million to Coutts, the Queen. Bank. His credit is strong and, presumably, he got a good rate. Yet it is unusual for a cultural institution to borrow for business purposes to cover operational losses.

Tate’s approach is more cut and burnt, cutting off staff and exhibits. A fifth of its staff is voluntarily dismissed. For the foreseeable future, it will only account for half of the number of exhibitions it has organized in 2019 and will make more of its own collections to avoid costly transport and insurance costs for works of art borrowed from institutions. museums elsewhere. “Until then, we are going to be a shadow of ourselves,” said one curator.

the VIRGINIA tried a more ambitious plan. To save £ 10million in annual costs by 2023, he wanted to cut 140 jobs, in part by merging his many collections into three chronological departments, ranging from medieval to contemporary, with another department focused on digital art, design and performance, with a fifth grouping together its sub-Saharan and Asian collections. The backlash was fierce. The museum was forced to back down. It is now unclear how he will fill the void in his finances.

When the museums reopen on May 17, the BM will offer visitors a show to mark the 850th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s death, and the VIRGINIA to a flashy Faberge Egg Show, but neither will be able to thrill people like before. Visitors will need to reserve a place before coming; there will be no meeting. BM will only admit 2,000 people per day, compared to an average of 15,000 in happier times. The business model of the great London museums depended on crowds. In the short term, and possibly beyond, they must find other means of survival.

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This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the title “Empty rooms”



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