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Lending and borrowing are vital for museums and their collections to remain dynamic and relevant. Katie Lloyd and Catherine Monks think it’s one of the best ways to attract audiences back.

Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery, Weston Loan Programme.

Andy Smith

Since its launch in 2017, the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund has had a transformative effect on museums and galleries in the UK. To date, we have awarded almost £1million to 65 organisations, enabling high-profile national loans and elevating regional collections. 

Stemming from an idea from Sophia Weston, a trustee of the Garfield Weston Foundation, the scheme has offered much-needed stability during a turbulent and uncertain time. Like other organisations, museums and galleries have been hit hard by the pandemic and, while the more acute crises have subsided, the longer-term impact continues to be felt. 

Site closures have led to and been compounded by staff shortages, financial pressures and diminished audiences. And when it comes to lending and borrowing, the sector has been hampered by supply issues, restricted travel and shifting timescales. 

Staff have had to manage competing priorities, wading through a backlog of loan requests while simultaneously shoring up the future of their institutions. This has resulted in a sense that now may not be the best time to initiate a new loan project.

Creativity through adversity

Despite this, the sector has been endlessly creative in finding ways to share exhibitions and forge sustainable relationships at every scale: from setting up mobile galleries to co-curating major shows, and from loans of important objects to co-commissioning new works of art. Certainly, we have been buoyed by the determination and innovation shown, and by the collaborative approach to delivering projects and reengaging audiences. 

In our most recent funding round, we supported an ambitious, multi-site exhibition overseen by Wessex Museums Trust. Hardy’s Wessex spans four sites, drawing out different themes of local significance at Dorset Museum, Poole Museum, Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum. 

The project includes prized loans from the British Library, Fitzwilliam Museum, Tate and V&A, epitomising the aims of the programme. This model of partnership working supports the four accredited museums to maximise their profile and audience reach as well as to connect and showcase their regional collections. It also boosts confidence and capacity, develops skills, engages diverse audiences and enables the sharing of resources. 

In these ways, Hardy’s Wessex encapsulates some of the more positive opportunities presented by the pandemic: in particular co-production, prioritising UK loans, and working closely with local communities. 

Invaluable first-hand insights

When museums get this right, the benefits are profound. Nantgarw Chinaworks in Wales, a former Weston Loan Programme grantee, achieved a three-fold increase in visitor figures during their supported exhibition which showcased major loans from Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales. 

In general, grantees have reported wide-ranging benefits from participation from higher-than-average levels of visitor satisfaction and an increase in visitor-generated revenue, to a legacy of new skills and increased confidence among museum staff, leaving them better placed to pursue loan projects in the future.    

Since 2020, Art Fund has been gathering information on museums’ priorities, challenges and needs. Through annual sector surveys and research, we have gained invaluable first-hand insights that help shape our funding and support programmes. 

From our 2021 Museum Directors’ survey, we learned that collections-based exhibitions are the best means to reengage audiences after lengthy closures. Similarly, the recent Going Places report, co-commissioned by Art Fund and Creative Scotland, identified key areas of interest and development for the next couple of years.

These include borrowing from permanent collections in the UK; increasing collaboration between museums and galleries; encouraging touring exhibitions; focusing on the hyper-local; enabling the co-curation of shows; and exploring new ways to present and interpret collections. 

Supporting ambition

Together with partners such as the National Museum Directors’ Council, Touring Exhibitions Group, UK Registrars Group, Museum Development UK, and programme managers at national museums, we are committed to stimulating and supporting more ambition in the sector. 

We have collaborated on resources for museums and galleries, including the Sharing Collections series and the new Principles for Lending and Borrowing, and we will continue to offer more tailored and joined-up support over the coming months. 

Through events and workshops, there will be greater opportunity for networking and training, and we will offer advice and guidance on draft proposals. We are keen to reach new organisations, but also to encourage previously successful grantees to push on from their original projects. 

Comprehensive approach

A key strength of the programme is its comprehensive approach to grants. The funds cover up to 100% of the costs of securing and displaying a loan, but also enable recipients to maximise the impact of that loan through marketing and audience engagement. 

A high-profile loan is a real draw for reengaging audiences, but it isn’t enough on its own. We continue to address the gaps in existing support through the programme, particularly relating to infrastructure, marketing, communications, the use of freelance support and other ways of adding value to loan projects. 

Our next round of the Weston Loan Programme will open this summer, helping more museums to realise the many benefits of lending and borrowing. We want to support projects that are ambitious, exciting and high-profile. All types of loan are eligible – natural history, artefacts or paintings - and we encourage all museums and galleries to get in touch to discuss their proposals, for long and short-term loan projects. 

We are ready to help kickstart lending and borrowing, to support more collaboration between national and regional museums and, ultimately, to enable you to bring extraordinary loans and experiences to your audiences. 

Katie Lloyd is Grants Manager and Catherine Monks is Head of Funding Partnerships at Art Fund.

Find out more about the Weston Loan Programme.

This article, sponsored and contributed by Art Fund, is part of a series sharing information and expertise to support museums and galleries to recover from the pandemic and develop audiences for the future.

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