Museum Funding: Harriet Harman and Corporate Vanity

Heritage – and museums in particular – have not been having an easy time of it lately. So when Harriet Harman, after preventing Newcastle City Council cutting it’s art budget 100%gave a speech (in her capacity as Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS)  to reassure the culture community that Labour ‘get the arts‘ I read it with interest.  Within the text were three paragraphs that I felt had particular resonance for heritage and museums:

…there is a new generation who’ve emerged during a time of flowering of the arts who now need to hear and be confident in making the case. And there’s a generation of the public who have no idea about the scale and importance of public funding in the arts.

Perhaps it was because no-one felt they needed to draw attention to it, because the funding could be relied upon. Or was it, perhaps, partly out of a hesitation about drawing attention to public subsidy it in case that might jeopardise it.

But whatever the reason, go to any institution or read any programme and the names of the donors are up in lights but the contribution – the collective contribution of the taxpayer – is all but invisible. So the irony is that the cuts have been made easier because most people remain unaware of the important role of subsidy in the arts.

(Harriet Harman, 12 February 2013; emphasis mine)

Reading this I thought back to museums and exhibitions I had attended in the past. What I remembered (apart from brilliant artefacts and curatorship) was the prominent position given to corporate sponsorships. Indeed, the more I thought about it, the harder it seems these days to go to a museum and not stumble across a prominent Sackler gallery or similar [1]. This immediately set to mind the work of Michael Asher (an artist who often explored museum and gallery practice) and his 1983 installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles titled The Michael Asher Lobby. In this work he sought to explore how:

Museums have become increasingly dependent on wealthy individuals for assistance in funding building projects. In order to acknowledge such benefactions, museum administrations are frequently obliged to name a gallery after the particular sponsor. Asher’s work is intended to draw attention to such displays of personal vanity [2] and to the wider implications of the appropriation of public space by donors.

(Putnam 2009: 95)

It strikes me that we are now feeling the effects of this ‘appropriation of public space’ as cuts are made with ease and too few visitors fully realise that they (and their taxes) are of equal significance to the big money donations or legacies plastered across brochures and plaques. Yes, there may be acknowledgements to the Arts Council or a Local Authority, but how many people make a direct link between a deduction on a payslip and what they are experiencing?

In the current climate much of the valuable work undertaken by our museums would be impossible without the deep pockets of wealthy individuals or corporations, and it is only right that their generosity is recognised. However, in these tough times we should (as Harman suggested) re-evaluate if the current system is fairly recognising the wider contribution of society. If we do so then we may be rewarded with broader support during difficult days [3].

The (insert your name) Gallery

Illustration (badly) adapted from a photograph of The Michael Asher Lobby in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

References & Notes

Putnam, J. 2009: Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium (revised edition). London: Thames and Hudson.

[1]  This shouldn’t be read as a denigration of the fantastic work that these individuals and organisations fund.

[2] I think ‘corporate vanity’ should be included here as well.

[3] Please note that I am not writing this as a museum specialist, but as an archaeologist who views museums as one of the most important public facing aspects of heritage in the UK. Others have likely dealt with this issue much more eloquently and in depth than myself, so be nice if I’m talking rubbish….

Written by +Matt Nicholas


4 thoughts on “Museum Funding: Harriet Harman and Corporate Vanity

  1. Few writers are as precise as you were in this article. Other than amazing detail, you also communicated your knowledge on this subject in a manner that an ordinary person can fully grasp

  2. Something tells me that Header Exhaust Wrap might not be your real name and that this just possibly might be spam. But, you know what, I’m going to take the compliment anyway. Just in case your name really is Header Exhaust Wrap.

  3. Pingback: free archaeology: austerity Britain – museum workers and entire workforces are replaced with volunteers | conflict antiquities

  4. Pingback: free archaeology: austerity Britain – museum workers and entire workforces are replaced with volunteers | (un)free archaeology

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