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Does the UK need more Cultural Gifts?

27 March 2014

As a senior government figure said to me, the best thing about the budget for arts and museums is that there were no more cuts.

In fact things were a little better than that, with a £10million increase in the total annual fund for tax relief on gifts of pre-eminent works of art to museums. A few years ago the government changed the rules so that rich people can get tax benefits by giving works of art while they’re still alive. Before then, you had to be dead before you were incentivised to give things to museums! So, the government is consistent in its improvements to the team system for museum donors.

This support for gifts to museum collections is welcome – but at the risk of sounding a little churlish, it’s hardly a priority in these times of austerity. It’s well known that most museums (although not all) own more things than they really know what to do with. So, getting existing collections better used might be seen as bringing more public benefit than saving yet more works of art for ‘the nation’.

If I were Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne with a spare £10million, I might use it instead to introduce a proper programme of temporary exhibitions touring round major cities. In London, people are overwhelmed with great exhibitions; it’s probably impossible to see them all unless you’re a professional art critic. But in major centres like Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and Birmingham, international-standard exhibitions come along only every few years.

Osborne seems to be a supporter of the arts. A notable feature of the budget was a new tax relief that in effect means the government will pay around 20% of the cost of new theatre productions.

So, George, here’s my suggestion. Instead of giving money so museums can buy yet more work by dead artists from rich people, alive or dead, why not fund regional exhibitions, devised by living curators, so more people can enjoy the things museums already own.

And, while you’re at it, you could even extend the theatre-production tax break to exhibitions, so that they’re cheaper to organise and even more people can benefit, all over the country.

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