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The week in art news – Birmingham Council to axe entire arts budget by 2026

23 February 2024

Arts organisations in Birmingham are set to lose all of their council funding by 2026, as the city council attempts to make up a £300 million budget shortfall. Institutions that will be significantly affected include Ikon Gallery, the city’s contemporary art museum, which has gone from receiving £300,000 in council funding in 2012 to being awarded less than £20,000 in 2023–24 – a figure that will be halved for the 2024–25 budget and reduced to zero by 2026. Ikon CEO Ian Hyde has stated that the cuts will impact the gallery’s ability to serve the city’s communities but maintains that the museum is ‘determined to stay open and free for everyone’. The cuts are not restricted to the visual arts as the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Opera Company and B:Music – the charity that oversees Birmingham Symphony Hall and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – are all set to face 50% funding cuts this year and lose all council funding by 2026. Last year, Birmingham City Council effectively declared itself bankrupt in the wake of equal pay claims worth £760 million in total and an £80 million overspend on an IT system. It is one of a number of councils, including Suffolk County Council and Nottingham City Council, that have made similarly swingeing cuts to their arts budget. Birmingham City Council’s recent budget proposals will be voted on by council members in a meeting on 5 March.

The High Court has dismissed a challenge brought by campaigners to the government’s Stonehenge Tunnel project. The Stonehenge Alliance had been seeking a judicial review of the project’s development order, arguing that the proposed overhaul is ‘too vast and intrusive to protect the World Heritage Site’ and citing a host of ecological and financial problems. Mr Justice Holgate ruled against the campaigners, judging most aspects of their case to be ‘unarguable’. The work, which the Stonehenge Alliance estimates could cost close to £2.5 billion, will involve widening the road from a single to a dual carriageway between Berwick Down and Amesbury, as well as constructing a two-mile long tunnel under the site, in order to ease traffic in the area. This case is the latest development in a long-running saga surrounding the project. The plans were first green-lit in 2020 by then-transport minister Grant Shapps against the advice of Planning Inspectorate officials, who warned that it could cause ‘permanent, irreversible harm’ to the area. The following year the project was ruled to be unlawful by the High Court. In 2023, the government green-lit a lightly modified version of the original proposal. Archaeological work is due to be carried out later this year, with principal construction scheduled to begin in 2025.

The Science Museum Group (SMG) has announced plans to operate in Saudi Arabia by setting up a ‘museums hub’ in Riyadh. According to a statement, the SMG intends for some of its curators and officials to ‘work closely with museum professionals, researchers and educators in Saudi Arabia’. No launch date or commercial terms have yet been decided. Last year, the Centre Pompidou signed a deal to establish a contemporary art gallery in the kingdom. Ian Blatchford, CEO of the SMG, said in a statement: ‘[S]ome of the countries in which we work are not democracies, with human rights frameworks far below the standards we cherish.’ He continued: ‘Our clear view is that there is huge potential to support positive change and reform for people in Saudi Arabia by building science engagement among citizens and growing a strong, sustainable museums sector.’ The SMG, which comprises the Science Museum in London, the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford and two railway museums in the north of England, has faced criticism in recent years for accepting sponsorship from fossil fuel companies such as BP, Shell and Equinor; in 2021, a member of the Science Museum’s advisory board resigned over the issue.

Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM) in Seattle, Washington, has launched an emergency fundraising campaign to prevent it from having to close permanently. According to executive director Kate Casprowiak Scher, who was appointed in an interim capacity in September and whose role was made permanent earlier this week, the gallery is facing a ‘dire financial crisis’: if it cannot raise $300,000 to cover the next six weeks’ worth of salaries and maintenance, as well as the catering for its upcoming gala, BAM will have to cease operations. For the last six months, the museum has been relying on donations from board members. As well as facing debts – a situation worsened by interest rates that spiked in 2022 and are showing no signs of falling – BAM lacks a hefty endowment to help it operate. The museum has also been bedevilled by high staff turnover and cuts to human resources: Scher’s predecessor, E. Michael Whittington, was in the job for less than two years, and the museum has cut its staff numbers in the last three years from 44 to 21, a figure that includes seven part-timers. BAM ended 2022 with a deficit of nearly $809,000; its operating costs were $2.9 million.

The UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has deferred a Romanesque ivory carving’s export license for the second time. Deposition from the Cross (c. 1190–1200) was on loan to the V&A from 1982 to 2022, before the Met purchased the work from its owners for £2 million, subject to the work being exportable. In November 2023, DCMS temporarily stopped its export until 2 February this year. This deferral period has now been extended to 14 June. The V&A has launched a fundraising campaign to help it acquire the work, with the museum’s director Tristram Hunt describing the 18.3cm-high walrus ivory as ‘one of the most beautiful, entrancing and historically important items to have been on display at the V&A’. Writing for Apollo in January, art historian Sandy Heslop argued that the fragmentary sculpture should remain in the British institution, where it can be seen alongside another fragment from the same altarpiece: ‘The two have been shown side by side for decades to the advantage of both pieces, offering a sense of the ensemble from which they came. That unity will be destroyed if the Deposition is sold to the Met.’