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Autumn Statement brings relief but also unanswered questions for the arts

27 November 2015

Commentators were surprised by the seemingly modest cuts to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in the UK government’s Comprehensive Spending Review this week. Like other unprotected Whitehall departments, it was advised to model for cuts of 25 per cent and 40 per cent, but in the end its budget was reduced by 5 per cent overall, as Chancellor George Osborne called the arts ‘one of the best investments we can make as a nation’. The response within the art world has been understandably positive, but questions remain – not least what a 29 per cent cut to the Department for Communities and Local Government will mean for municipal museums. Below we summarise some of the major announcements and their implications.

National Museums to Remain Free

The Autumn Statement pledges to ensure continued free access to national museums and galleries, maintaining funding in cash terms for these institutions. The operational and financial freedoms accorded to these museums have been extended to include the National Army Museum, the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force Museum, the Churches Conservation Trust and Historic England. But the latter released a statement shortly after the Spending Review, warning that a projected cut of 10 per cent to its baseline budget was ‘not an insignificant challenge’.

A Welcome Settlement for the Arts Council

The Arts Council’s relief was palpable this week as it announced an ‘astonishing settlement’ which promises the funding body a modest cash increase of around £10m for the next four years. Once inflation is taken into account that actually amounts to a real-terms reduction of about 5 per cent, but it’s enough to maintain investments in its 663-strong National Portfolio and 21 Major Partner Museums. In a statement, Arts Council England chair Sir Peter Bazalgette ended with a note to beleaguered local authorities: ‘We cannot replace their revenue but we’ll keep investing where Local Authorities keep faith with culture,’ he promised.

New Collection Storage Centre to Replace Blythe House

The government promised to invest £150 million to support the British Museum, Science Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum to replace what it called ‘out of date museum storage at Blythe House’ with ‘new world-class storage facilities’. Blythe House, in London’s Olympia, is to be sold off ‘in due course’ – although there is no indication as yet as to where the new storage facilities will be, or whether they will be located in London and therefore be easily accessible to curators and researchers. The treasury tweeted that the investment would help the museums ‘move their collections out of storage & on display’, a sentiment to be welcomed – although there is no mention of this in the Spending Review itself. No mention either of what will happen to the Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion. That was only opened the V&A in 2013 – and cost more than £2 million.

Capital Investments in Culture Across the UK

Manchester is one of the biggest cultural beneficiaries of the government’s Northern Powerhouse project, that aims to boost the economy across the region. Among the projects to receive funding are The Factory (a new arts venue supported by Apollo’s Personality of the Year Maria Balshaw), the Museum of Science and Industry, and a new South Asia Gallery for the Manchester Museum. Glasgow’s Burrell Collection will receive £5m to support its refurbishment and an international tour of its collection.

Uncertainty for Local Authority Museums

Local government faced some of the heaviest cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review. That’s likely to spell tough times ahead for hundreds of local authority museums across the country, who rely on local authorities for funding and broader support. Museums, unlike libraries, are not statutory services – and there is now genuine concern that councils will incline to view museum buildings and collections as assets that can be disposed of to make up shortfalls elsewhere. Even before the Autumn Statement, Lancashire County Council (Labour) had announced it will end funding to five museums under its aegis.

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