Nightmare at the museum as funding shake-up leaves a shadow over future

John Martin paintings
John Martin paintings
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The latest round of arts funding has left some Yorkshire organisations celebrating and others out in the cold. Arts Correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

Back in September last year an exhibition at Tate Britain received glowing five-star reviews.

The show which had the capital’s critics all of a flutter was an exhibition of work by James Martin. However, for once folk in the Broad Acres had no need for an expensive train journey down south to see what all the fuss was about.

We’d already had the opportunity to see John Martin’s stunning Apocalypse exhibition and what’s more we had it here first.

The exhibition had been mounted in Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery during the summer where the epic paintings by the Victorian artist were given an impressive showing. The visitor figures were impressive with 39,000 people passing through the doors in 76 days to see the work up close.

While the gallery’s main space was playing host to John Martin, a smaller, quieter exhibition was being staged in the Graves Gallery. In terms of size, the BLK Art Group show was far less impressive, but after a recent funding announcement, major exhibitions like Apocalypse may become a thing of the past.

“The BLK Art exhibition, in two rooms of the Graves, will look like a major exhibition for us in the future,” says Nick Dodd, chief executive of Museums Sheffield. “That is the very real impact this cut will have on us.”

The idea of scaling back is causing much consternation in South Yorkshire and is a result of the latest round of funding announcements from Arts Council England (ACE). In October last year ACE took over responsibility for handing out funding to regional museums from Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA) and set up a new system, called Renaissance.

Before it was disbanded, the MLA’s last annual funding tranche had seen £37.6m worth of grants handed out to 45 museums. However, ACE, which is going through the biggest funding change in its history, decided to do things a little differently.

Instead of following the MLA’s blueprint, it invited museums and eligible organisations to reapply for cash. There were 29 applications from organisations from around the country asking for a total of £116.4m. Sixteen were eventually selected by the Arts Council to receive the £60m it had available to dispense over three years. Museums Sheffield was not among them.

Yesterday, following a week of disquiet in the organisation and within the city, Dodd gathered the staff of Museums Sheffield together to give them the full picture.

“For the first time in our history, we closed the doors of the venue during our normal opening times, to call an emergency meeting and bring all the staff together to tell them the situation,” he says.

“We announced a redundancy programme and explained which posts we would have to lose. We made it very clear that everyone is at risk, there are no guarantees. We will lose 45 people, but nobody is safe.

“I also wanted to tell the staff how enormously impressed we are at their professionalism and dedication in all they are doing to keep the venue open in such a difficult time.”

Previously Museums Sheffield, which runs the Millennium Galleries, the Graves Gallery and Weston Park, received around £800,000 a year from MLA. This was in addition to its core annual funding of £2m from Sheffield City Council.

Under the new set up, the organisation had applied for annual funding of £1.4m from the Renaissance Major Partners funding stream, but with its bid unsuccessful it won’t now receive one penny of the £60m.

“We wanted to invest the money as evenly as we could across England, so the whole museums sector, and audiences across the country, would benefit,” says an ACE spokesman. “Where that didn’t prove possible, we will use the Renaissance Strategic support fund to fill geographical gaps, and to fund other important museums work. We’ll also be investing in museums through the Renaissance Museums development fund and other national programmes.”

It is understood that the Arts Council is speaking with representatives from Sheffield City Council as the other main funder of Museums Sheffield. Following a meeting with ACE’s Yorkshire’s chief executive Cluny Macpherson and a board meeting earlier this week, Dodd says his organisation is working out how to mount an appeal against the decision.

“We have been told we can apply for strategic funding, but all that will be is to help the transition towards us becoming a much smaller organisation. We are still dying, strategic money means we will die a little more slowly.”

The funding decision came as a shock to Museums Sheffield’s staff and its management because it has over the past decade enjoyed a period of unparalleled success.

Partnerships with the Tate, the V&A and major exhibitions like the John Martin one have pushed visitor figures at its venues above a million and it has emerged as one of the region’s flagship organisations.

However, while the funding announcement is undoubtedly bad news for Sheffield, the picture is complicated.

“Of the £800,000 Sheffield Museums received from MLA, only half of it is now covered by the new funding system,” adds Macpherson. “The other half will now potentially come from separate funding streams under the Arts Council’s Renaissance programme which Museums Sheffield can apply to. Redundancy payments and funding for 2012 activity will continue to be funded until its completion.”

As with last year, when ACE had to decide which theatre and dance companies would become National Portfolio Organisations and therefore receive regular, core funding and which ones wouldn’t, there are winners and losers.

While the Museums Sheffield decision is a body blow to the city, galleries in Leeds and York were celebrating, while Hull was sharing in Sheffield’s misery.

York Museums Trust and Leeds Art Gallery both found themselves with a spot in the final list of 16 and a guaranteed share of the £20m annual funding from the ACE to regional museums.

Janet Barnes, chief executive of York Museums Trust, says: “We are delighted that our application for major grants funding was successful and that the Arts Council has endorsed our plans for the next three years.

“This substantial and guaranteed investment will enable us to continue developing the museums and galleries. The funding will benefit the city and we plan to develop the York Museum Gardens and around York Castle Museum.”

Leeds Museums and Galleries is also one of the 16 chosen to receive funding from Renaissance. Leeds City Council executive member for leisure councillor Adam Ogilvie says: “This is wonderful news for Leeds. A tremendous amount of hard work has gone into making this change happen. It will provide a major boost.”

In the East of the county there was no such good cheer. Like a number of organisations, Hull City Council with East Riding of Yorkshire Council and North Lincolnshire submitted a joint bid to Renaissance, which was unsuccessful.

A spokesman says: “We are disappointed that we have not received the Renaissance funding, we hoped that working as a Humber Partnership we could bring even more projects of value to the area.”

Cluny Macpherson met with the representatives in Hull yesterday, following his visit to Sheffield earlier in the week.

He says: “Yorkshire has a wealth of fantastic museums, and as a result it has been extremely difficult to make a choice. We are really disappointed that we cannot fund all of the excellent applications we received from the region, but we had a limited amount of resources available to us.”

The reality is the Arts Council is making decisions about which organisations deserve and need funding against the backdrop of drastic cuts to its own budget.

Last year, when deciding which organisations would become National Portfolio Organisations and receive regular funding and which would not, instead of cutting all organisations a little, it took the decision – considered at the time bold – to overhaul the entire process.

The result was some of those companies which had enjoyed regular funding were cut from the list entirely while others were welcomed into the fold for the first time. It guaranteed drama, but gave ACE the opportunity to make a big statement.

Macpherson says: “We appreciate how disappointing this news is for Sheffield Museums. Yorkshire has an incredibly strong museums offer, which was reflected in the high quality of applications we received from the region, and it was with regret that we couldn’t fund Sheffield Museums as a Major Partner.

“With applications amounting to double the budget available, we had to make some really difficult choices in order to achieve the best result we could for the wider museums sector, and for audiences across the country.”

In the meantime, the outlook remains bleak for Sheffield.

“We have been told we can apply for other funding later in the year, but that isn’t a solution, all that will do is allow us to implement plans to reduce our service significantly,” says Dodd. “We don’t know what the future holds. We are going to be a smaller organisation. This is very serious for culture in the city.”

Winners and losers

Sheffield Museums: Applied for £1.4m annually from Renaissance. Currently it receives £2m from Sheffield City Council, £800,000 from MLA fund (which Renaissance replaces). Total visitor figures are in excess of 1.2m a year.

Leeds Museums and Galleries: Now one of the 16 Major Partner organisations of Renaissance, it will receive a share of £20m annually for three years to split across nine venues including Leeds City Art Gallery and Temple Newsam. In 2004 the venues received 330,000 visitors – last year that number was 1.1m.

York Museums Trust: Will use its share of Renaissance funding to expand the use of outdoor spaces like York Museum Gardens and around York Castle Museum.

Hull City Council: Venues include Wilberforce House, the Hull and East Riding Museum. It used previous MLA funding for projects including volunteer and education programmes.