Monday, October 19, 2009

Museums and the Recession - Part 2

I’ve blogged a number of times this year about the effect of the recession on museums (Why Museum visits rise in recessions (August 09), Museums and the recession – the lipstick phenomena (May 09), Will the recession close museums (April 09)). Both the UK and American Museum Association journals arrived last week and both carry articles on such. In the US the harsh reality of the GFC is emerging, described as a mixture of major staff cuts, evaporating endowments, shortening of opening hours and reduced operating budgets. Nobody is enjoying it very much, with 'efficiency' the name of the game, which translates into less money with which to do more as there are less staff to keep the operations going. Some have closed for a day a week, such as the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, though the CEO has put a silver lining on this in that it allows staff more time in the Museum without constant public pressure (I am reminded of that famous quote from a V&A Museum Keeper (read Senior Curator) in the 1960s to the effect that the only problem with museums was that one had to let the public in!).

In the UK the picture looks similar, though museums there tend to be more dependent on local council funding and less on endowment funding. Across the country there seems to be squeezing and cutting of budgets, with the jobs market described as ‘pretty bleak’, and major collecting institutions such as the National Archives having to reduce its running costs (and thus staff and programs) by 10% due to a standstill budget.

So what of the Australian scene? I was struck when in WA two weeks ago by the
poor state of funding for the Perth collecting institutions, with staff positions left vacant and budgets slashed. The most spectacular example of this is the complete canning of the $450 m WA Museum redevelopment. When I inquired if this came off some relatively good times, I was surprised to hear that, despite the vast tax revenue stream of the mining boom during the last decade, there had been no flow on into the cultural sector.

And when I was in Canberra last week, though less severe than WA, it became clear that the national institutions are also facing significant funding shortages. Where the picture is slightly rosier is with those organizations that are eligible to pick up parts of the $60m set aside by the federal government for heritage projects. This has almost all been allocated and significant parts of the sum have been picked up by the National Trust and historic house museums. As the money has to be spent quickly to help stimulate the economy, these organizations are flat out managing their programs to make that happen.

But we must not forget the bigger picture, unfortunately, that all this money being spent on stimulating the economy has been borrowed and will need repaying. And during THAT process is when the funding cuts may become really severe.

All this comes at a time when there is no love amongst the federal government for culture and the organizations that deliver it. This was brought home last week with the demise of the Collections Council of Australia, a body based in Adelaide and supported by the Cultural Ministers Council (of all the states). It is a body that, though criticized for some of its initiatives, has valiantly striven to bring the archives, library and museum/gallery worlds into closer communion. We shall be the poorer for its going.

No comments:

Post a Comment