Research to understand the resilience, and challenges to this, of Local Authority museums for Arts Council England is an independent report by TBR and explores the challenges faced by museums across England following reductions to local authority funding. It highlights the significant level of current and expected cuts, but also finds that many local authority museums are doing well. Key success criteria are strong, proactive leadership, alignment with local authority priorities, and a culture of enterprise not only in a museum but in its local authority.

However, the report also warns that austerity will last longer than originally anticipated: “Whilst 2015 will see a detailed comprehensive spending review, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has already indicated that the changes in funding prompted by the recession represent “a long term shift” and should not be thought of as temporary.”

The report also states that financial resilience is ‘naturally a key component of this’ but, as building-based organisations with fixed costs, museums are particularly vulnerable to cuts in funding. It said that much of the literature on how local authorities respond to funding challenges is dominated by transferring museum services to trust status; the effect of this is to mask other availability of alternative approaches, which may include the museum remaining ‘in-house’. “A focus in the literature on structure also obscures the need for a clear business purpose and recognition of the challenges involved in establishing a successful business,” it said.

Topics researched include; Resilience in the museums sector, Local government structures and funding and what this means for museums, Main responses to reduced funding observed to date and Organisational attitudes.

“Even at a time of challenge many local authority museums are thriving. We’re seeing museums across the country whose own enterprising spirit is matched by their local authority – the two must go hand in hand,” said John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Museums, Arts Council England. “Local authority investment in culture and heritage is vital, but we are working in tough economic times. This research is a challenge to local authorities as well as to museums, to seek out creative ways to see our nation’s museums flourish for future generations. No one size fits all, but there are plenty of models for strategic, thoughtful change at a time of reduced funding.”

The report states that in 2014 there were 1,316 accredited museums in England, of which 397 were local authority museums (30% of all accredited museums). These museums were distributed across 123 authorities, which averages at three museums per authority.

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This research is a challenge to local authorities as well as to museums, to seek out creative ways to see our nation's museums flourish for future generations

John Orna Ornstein

The analysis found that local authorities were reported to have used a number of different approaches when implementing budget cuts and may have used different, if not combined, approaches over successive years including:

– Equal cuts or ‘salami-slicing’ across local services, although this approach appears to have waned as time has passed.

– Protection of budgets for statutory services and for services that contribute significantly to council priorities, i.e. protection of a larger number of services than just statutory services.

– Cuts focused on ‘discretionary’ services.

– Efficiency savings by centralising functions such as marketing and introducing new HR and IT systems.

– Cost reductions based on service performances relative to benchmarks, i.e. budgets based on average spend per head in the relevant LGA/CIPFA ‘family group’

– Public consultation on how to make, and how to respond, to cuts across local authority services.

In reviewing local authority museum services’ efforts to increase their financial resilience, it is important to remember the services may take a number of different forms which in turn affect the options available to them. For example:

– A council-owned collection managed by an in-house local authority museum service, e.g.

– Kirklees, Leeds, Waltham Forest, Bath and North East Somerset.

– Multiple collections and buildings owned by a number of local authorities managed by a single in-house local authority service, e.g. Norfolk Museums Service.

– A collection owned by a trust with museum services provided by a local authority, e.g. Cowle Museum, Stroud.

– A council-owned collection and buildings managed by an independent trust, e.g. Whitaker Museum, Rossendale, Birmingham Museums Trust and Bexley Heritage Trust.

Read the report here.

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Conclusions

  • There is no one-size-fits-all response to the changing funding environment.
  • Developing an entrepreneurial culture will be vital to future resilience.
  • It is important to focus on selecting the right business model and strategy.
  • Effective, pro-active leadership is vital. Museums that thrive within a local authority setting tend to align their activities with the council’s priorities.
  • Advocacy must be effective from national to local level.
  • Skills remain a barrier to change. People and skills are crucial to achieving change.