After a decade of austerity, many of the cultural institutions in towns and cities across the UK are in a fragile state. When talking to people from the country’s museums, I hear often about the job losses, cuts to opening hours and low morale. Proud civic museum services such as Birmingham, Derby and Newcastle have seen their local authority funding cut by up to 60 per cent since the start of the decade, and museums are struggling to paper over the cracks.
So people’s ears pricked up in 2017 when the Conservatives included a new Cultural Development Fund (CDF) in their general election manifesto, which would ‘use cultural investment to turn around communities’ outside London. In the absence of a political will to fund local authorities properly, the fund seemed like the next best thing, not least because the amounts being discussed at the time – up to £500m – were not insignificant.
But time and politics have taken their toll on the CDF. When the first five schemes were finally announced this month, the funding available was just £20m, with no promise of more to come. What’s more, museums and galleries are almost entirely absent from the winning bids. Only the Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park feature meaningfully as part of Wakefield’s plan to boost the creative economy of the area.
The other winning bids have focused on two key trends in cultural policy-making. In Plymouth and Grimsby they’re using much of their money to support local festivals, while Worcester and the Thames Estuary are supporting the growth of creative industry clusters – areas in towns and cities where creative businesses, from textiles to video games, are supported with the help of public sector grants and planning regimes. Good for them – but it’s unfortunate to see museums and other cultural institutions largely absent from these plans. Not only do they need support from all quarters at the moment, but they are also well placed to support the kind of culture-led community that the government says it wants – whether that means pulling in more tourists, or working to foster a local sense of pride in place.
So the CDF has limped on to the scene rather than arriving with a bang. But it undoubtedly has potential to be a positive force. I’m just hoping to see more investment in the scheme in future – and more museums playing their part in it.
Alistair Brown is Policy Officer at the Museums Association.