Why we need culture and it needs us

In addition to the reduction in government funding, the arts sector can also expect less corporate sponsorship, foundation grants and individual donations as the economy is put under pressure. Less funding is likely to reduce the quality of the arts offer in some regions and force the closure of galleries, museums and artist-led initiatives. It seems an appropriate time to ask: why do we need cultural engagement and what will happen to museums and galleries if we don’t visit them?

In 2010 the Government cut national museums budgets by 15%, Arts Council England was asked to reduce their administrative budget by 40% and to pass 15% cuts on to their regularly funded organisations. The Arts Council is a vital funding stream for large museums and individual artists alike. In museums, the gradual loss of staff as well as a reduction in the scope and ambition of exhibition programmes and other activities could lead to a reduction in visitors (PDF). Without visitors, museums will lose their reason for being. The process of interpreting objects, artworks and history is ongoing and dependant on new voices to keep them relevant; these voices come from staff, visitors and the community. The National Museums Directors Conference describes museums as “spaces in which identities are understood, formed and shared” and “a stimulating public space in which people can come together and be inspired.” (PDF)

Museums also help us to celebrate, question and explore human history. Without remembering its history, it is possible that the human race could succumb to a collective amnesia. Doctor of neurology Oliver Sacks describes an individual with amnesia as “… isolated in a single moment of being… without a past (or future), stuck in a constantly changing, meaningless moment”; this could describe a vision of the future for us all without culture. Archbishop Desmond Tutu echoed this sentiment when, speaking about an exhibition of photographs of apartheid he said, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Representing the dark side of human history is an important role of arts organisations. There are many museums and galleries, including the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, that are proactive in confronting today’s crises by bringing social injustice to our attention.

It is possible that the UK could lose its international outlook as a result of the reduction in cultural experiences. At the moment the UK is one of the most globalised countries in the world (PDF). Globalisation is defined by three key elements; social, economic and political, but also by the flow of ideas, trade and social mobility among other factors. Artists and art organisations have historically been at the forefront of introducing new ideas to the UK as well as critiquing the existing systems and status quo. Cities across the country have already lost key arts venues, and the Arts Council’s RFO portfolio had to be reduced from 849 to just 695 in the National Portfolio. It does not seem outlandish to wonder whether losing its voice in the international flow of ideas will leave the UK isolated and less able to participate in other global activities such as politics and trade.

Sheffield is a topical example of a city about feel the impact of cuts to its cultural provision. In January, Museums Sheffield found out that it will lose its share of the Arts Council England Renaissance support, equivalent to 30% of its annual budget.  The result will be the loss of, “around 45 key professional posts,” as well as, “greatly reduced educational activity for schools and adults in Sheffield,” and, “the end of significant exhibitions of a national standard” the museum told the Guardian.

Like Liverpool and Glasgow, the regeneration of Sheffield since the 1990s has involved improving its cultural offer, through projects such as the Millennium Galleries and Winter Gardens. In the future, without being able to rely on its flagship museum service, Sheffield may not be able to compete as effectively for tourism with its neighbouring cities of Leeds and York. Cultural tourism is vital to support the city’s growing service industry and ensure ongoing prosperity.

It will be interesting to follow the stories of Liverpool and Sheffield as their fate unfolds over the next months and years. Culture has been an important part of the regeneration of regional cities, as well as bringing new ideas and tourists to the UK. A decline in the quality of cultural provision could mean less cultural engagement.  Less cultural engagement could result in the stagnation of our interpretation of history, forgetting our history and losing our international voice.

First published February 2012

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