Galleries Haven't Got a Prayer ; the British Library Is Only the First to Go Public, but Closures and Reduced Services Are Certain for Museums and Galleries Facing the Toughest Round of Government Spending Cuts in Memory
Lebrecht, Norman, The Evening Standard (London, England)
THE MOST worrying aspect of the coming Ice Age is the way it has split the arts into rival camps, performing and visual, and sundered London from the rest of the country. The first closures are expected within a month, but where some art forms have been assured by the Chancellor that their future is secure, museums and galleries expect to be penalised and the regions will be starved of major attractions. That is where we stand on the eve of Gordon's big freeze.
Last summer, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) asked arts directors to submit contingency plans for cuts of seven and five per cent, in the hope that the Treasury would flinch at the prospect of closures.
It did not. Performing arts chiefs, led by Covent Garden's Tony Hall, found a way into Gordon Brown's parlour and were amiably assured they would not suffer.
The heads of museums and galleries were denied comparable access.
They now face nemesis. Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Gallery, has appealed to the Government not to damage museums "disproportionately". The British Library is threatening to shut early and charge users for reading books, a proposal that is so contrary to the library's constituted purpose that it has to be seen as a desperate ploy.
Strikes and disruptions start today.
The national museums have put forward three options if cuts are imposed on the scale intended. They can reintroduce admission charges; they can stop lending items and exhibits to the rest of the country; or they can shut departments, buildings and entire institutions.
The removal of entry charges five years ago resulted in 85 million extra museum visitors and is being trumpeted as one of New Labour's triumphs.
There is no way the Government will allow that egalitarian policy to be reversed.
Regional distribution is inviolate in much the same way. Although it costs London a fortune in wages and insurance to send cultural treasures around the nation, politicians are committed to equal distribution and will enforce continued touring.
That makes closures unavoidable. In the next few weeks, the Treasury will announce its local government settlement. Councils up and down the land are poised to shut arts facilities. In the London area, Wandsworth will close its local museum and end subsidy for the Battersea Arts Centre; Waltham Forest will mothball Vestry House and the William Morris Gallery, shrine to the Victorian Arts and Crafts movement and home to some pretty lush pre-Raphaelites.
"It's the tip of a much bigger wave," warns Graham Fisher, head of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council's London section, covering 230 museums.
"There are more alarms to come."
The spate of closures began late last year with the Type Museum in Stockwell and the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. The type collection, jointly owned by the Science Museum and the VA, is now in cold storage, unseen by public and scholars. The VA's theatre collection has gone into the Kensington vaults. Glasgow has recently withdrawn its museum of religion and there are fears for important art collections in Leeds.
This, however, is nothing to what will follow in June. The DCMS put its budget at the bottom of the Treasury pile in the hope that officials would run out of cutting zeal before they reached it. That plan has been confounded and museum chiefs are now engaged in a last round of talks with Treasury officials to retrieve stability from the jaws of disaster.
"Over 20 years," says Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum, "the museums of London have become the leaders of Europe in terms of energy and agenda setting. We don't need extra money. We're just asking for the same.
I'm remaining very positive that we can convince this government to sustain investment."
"I feel very determined about the case we have to put," asserts Sandy Nairne, head of the National Portrait Gallery. …