Thursday, April 2, 2009

Will the recession close museums?

Well that’s what we would all like to know! It’s interesting trying to read this one, particularly as the evidence coming from different parts of the world is different.

In Australia the good news is that so far, at state and national level, there seems to be limited effect. Yes, the sponsorship monies are drying up, so expansionary measures are on hold, but ongoing government funding is remaining reasonably steady (as one would expect given government interest in stimulating the economy). At local council level, again there seems to be only limited reduction in funding, but my guess is that these local museums and galleries will find it increasingly tough largely through their small size, meaning that a staff cut often results in a whole area of operation having to be curtailed.

In the US, the news is not at all good. Because so many museums there are owned by private philanthropic trusts, revenue has literally dried up, and there is increasing talk of institutions closing (though no examples yet cited). This comes at the same time as sponsorship is dramatically falling along with demand for commercial hire of venues, including those lucrative corporate private openings. The American Association of Museums recently ran a web conference entitled Museums Rising to the Financial Challenge covering such pertinent topics as retrenchment, realignment and reinvention.

The UK is also looking worried, especially as it has come at a time that the museum sector, having enjoyed some relatively well funded times (the successful Renaissance in the Regions program being one example), was already facing funding cuts. The cuts were largely driven by the massive blow out of the cost of the Olympics, which is especially ironic given the cultural Olympiad that is meant to go with it.

So overall a bit of a mixed bag. The biggest issue in my view is that the amount of public debt being created by the various fiscal stimulus packages around the world, is going to saddle future governments with massive debt repayment costs, and THAT is where the danger for museums is really going to come from, i.e being starved on funds as we come out of the recession and for years to come.

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