New research from the sector draws some optimistic conclusions about the prospects for museums, as Sarah Philp explains.
For Art Fund’s latest report, more than 200 UK museum directors shared their insights. We asked our network about their priorities, challenges and ambitions, with a view to finding out how we can best support museums as they emerge from the crisis and look to the future.
This is the third year we have conducted such research and the findings have proved immensely valuable in shaping our work. Thanks to all those who responded to the survey and participated in focus groups and one-to-one conversations, we have been able to direct over £6m of Covid funds to projects countrywide, helping museums adapt and evolve to changing circumstances.
We have also used our findings to champion and advocate for our vital museums sector to government, MPs, policymakers, funders and the public.
More than mere survival
Two years on from the first restrictions, the 2022 report strikes a note of optimism. Income has recovered to 68% of pre-pandemic levels, having slumped to 38%, and visitor numbers have steadily grown to 61% of pre-pandemic levels, after a low of 25% last year.
Emergency funding played a huge role in the survival of the sector. 84% of museums accessed emergency support or recovery funding – the vast majority accessing national public funds but many from local authorities and philanthropic funders too.
The pandemic gave time for reflection and some grasped opportunities as they arose. New sources of funding, an accelerated pace of change, and an increased use of digital engagement have been some of the positive trends to emerge from this most difficult of periods.
Audiences – although fewer in number – and spending more and staying longer. New local and often younger audiences are being engaged, and initiatives introduced during the pandemic such as cashless payments and online booking is proving popular. For sites with outdoor space, its use has been successful in keeping people coming back.
Underlying financial fragility
However, there is an underlying financial fragility that will be put under more pressure by the cost-of-living crisis and continuing cuts. Long before the pandemic, the sector’s resilience was already being tested by cuts to budgets and services. Emergency funding camouflaged that.
With that funding stream now dry, and with museums, their staff and their audiences facing rising costs, the true impact of past cuts and future losses will be felt sharply and deeply.
The report captures this sense of this fragility. Over a third of museum directors are concerned about the long-term survival of their institution, and in general reserve levels have taken a dip, while earned income shortfalls remain the biggest challenge.
Collections are key
Despite the challenges, museums are creative, resourceful and ambitious in their plans for the future.
The vast majority of respondents to our survey were collections-based, and those collections are central to their plans. Budgets for acquisitions and commissions have been relatively protected during the turbulence of the last two years, and we are pleased to note more than half of museum directors with collections are looking to acquire new works in the year ahead.
Almost three quarters plan to carry out a reinterpretation and review of their collections in the coming year, and 1 in 10 are engaged in the restitution or repatriation of works in their collections. These are primarily university museums with a wealth of academic expertise and global connections to draw on.
Collections – as well as borrowing and loaning - are likely to underpin the new exhibitions museums will be engaging in during the next year. With reduced budgets, pressures on capacity and concerns for environmental sustainability, our research points to fewer blockbuster exhibitions and more that draw on collections and run for longer.
Bringing back audiences
These factors all contribute to museums’ audience development priorities. Bringing back schools, core audiences and communities is foremost in museum directors’ minds. They know they need to cover the basics and rebuild income levels before moving onto other areas of audience development such as domestic tourism and deeper engagement.
Digital audiences and young people are important target groups. When asked about the relevance of Art Fund’s strategic priorities, digital activity and engaging young people in were both popular. We’ve already supported some fantastic projects for these audiences through our most recent grants programmes.
As an independent funder with a network of 850 museums and 130,000 members of the museum-loving public, Art Fund is well placed to connect you with your audiences and shout loudly and proudly about the work you do.
Our role in amplifying your voices and advocating the sector is highly valued by museum directors, and we have a range of exciting opportunities to help you achieve your ambitions.
Art Fund can help
Your feedback has been enormously valuable in shaping our offer. We have a number of ongoing programmes to help you develop your collection, whether through acquisitions, loans or in curatorial research. We want to hear your ideas for works, projects and partnerships.
We’re excited to share our future plans to support engagement – especially with the next generation. The Great Escape is a new UK-wide project for museums to engage with schools and families, inspired by the natural world. You can register your interest here.
We’re also open for applications to our Student Opportunities programme, providing grants for you to harness the power of young people with paid opportunities.
And a strand that runs through all our work, we champion the vital role museums play in our lives and in society. This research is a valuable asset in our advocacy to policymakers, public funders, and trusts and foundations, highlighting the fantastic work you’re doing and making the case for continued support to keep it going.
Sarah Philp is Director of Programmes and Policy at Art Fund.
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.