Thursday, May 21, 2009

Museums and the recession – the lipstick phenomena?

We all know about the theory of people turning to things that make them feel good in trying economic times – the so-called ‘lipstick phenomena’ driven by increased sales of lipsticks in recessions.

But now comes news from the UK that it appears museum visits may fall into the same category, with a recent Art Fund museum survey showing that over 35% of museums recording an increase in visitation, and 38% managing to hold numbers stable. Ok, that still means that over 25% saw a drop, but the overall picture is more positive than negative.

Unfortunately the funding picture is nowhere near as rosy, with 65% of museums suffering a budget cut, and 60% expecting further cuts. That is resulting in direct reductions in staff, ironically just as the rise in visitor numbers requires more staff resources. One of the consequences is that staff are being diverted to front of house duties away from curatorial and other functions. There is also pressure on volunteers to fill broader roles.

More broadly the health of the sector is difficult to read. On the one hand it appears that shop sales and charitable giving (where applicable) are holding up reasonably well. And one small silver lining is that reduced market prices are allowing acquisitions to continue with some gems finding their way into public hands at bargain prices.

On the other hand it is clear that corporate spending in the form of direct giving and venue hire for corporate entertainment has died. The fall in the value of investments for charitable organizations is also clearly going to effect the funds they have at their disposal.
And the biggest impact of all, which I have discussed in a previous blog, is still to be felt, when the claw back resulting from the current government spending begins. That is when the sector is really going to have to be on its toes as funding cuts bite.

If that is the UK story, how is Australia looking? Difficult to tell is my view. There are funding cuts occurring at major institutions, but it appears that contract staff rather than permanent staff are being effected. And whilst the economic picture here is not as serious as in the UK, there is no doubt that the same overall scenario holds.

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