Home Arts Previously free, some UK museums are starting to charge for the cost of living crisis

Previously free, some UK museums are starting to charge for the cost of living crisis

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In the post-pandemic era and financial hardship, regional galleries and museums across the UK that were free to enter are now asking visitors to pay admission fees, a move that has polarized cultural commentators. Some institutions have gone the traditional route of charging a standard entry fee, such as yard of the kettle in Cambridge, while Sainsbury Center in Norwich, part of the University of East Anglia, has introduced a voluntary payment model.

At Kettle’s Yard, management introduced an admission charge of £10.50 in April, which gives access to the Kettle’s Yard house. The home of curator Jim Ede and his wife Helen, an art teacher, was created from four dilapidated cottages near the city center in the 1950s and donated to the University of Cambridge a decade later.

Admission to Kettle’s Yard galleries and exhibitions remains free, however, a spokesperson said. An online statement adds that “the impact of rising costs, shutdown funding and Covid-19 has negatively impacted Kettle’s Yard finances”.

Invited to clarify the “blocking” of funding, the spokesperson says The arts journal: “Due to Arts Council England’s [ACE] Expenditure review and funding decisions underway, we do not anticipate an increase to our core ACE funding. The institution received £290,757 a year from 2018-22; this rose slightly to £296,107 for 2023-26.

“26% of our funding comes from the University [of Cambridge]; 15% of our funding comes from ACE. Many of the grants we receive do not cover core costs and are awarded to fund one-time projects and exhibitions, meaning we must generate more than half of our annual costs through fundraising, revenue earned and other sources,” the spokesperson said.

But this decision has been criticized by some observers. Cambridge University student Emily Lawson-Todd wrote in the University newspaper that “students always get free admission, which is good for any student budget. However, the fact that free admission is imposed on students creates an interesting dynamic as to who can freely enjoy art in Cambridge.

In Norwich, the Sainsbury Center has arguably taken a more democratic, but untested, approach to billing, introducing the UK’s first ‘pay if and what you can’ ticketing system in March. Previously, visitors paid £14 to see special temporary exhibitions. “People seem to like it, they like the empowerment,” says Jago Cooper, director of the center. “Sometimes the permanent collections can stand still while the temporary exhibitions, where all the excitement happens, are behind a paywall.”

He says the paid admission model was used as a follow-up guide, adding, “We saw a 30% increase in visitors. We are currently tracking about 5% below revenue targets. Trade is up in the cafe and store by around 20%. The system, however, has only been operational for a few months, but has been integrated into a five-year financial plan.

An ambitious “relaunch” of the collection last month to mark the centre’s 50th anniversary is also expected to boost attendance and revenue. (The project is to reconceptualize “what art really is”, allowing visitors to engage with the collection in new ways; for example, visitors can embrace Henry Moore’s 1932 work mother and child sculpture.)

The public as consumer

Maurice Davies, a UK-based museum and cultural consultant, says: “Different places display different philosophies. Interestingly, the Sainsbury Center seems to have taken steps to become more accessible while Kettle’s Yard has become less accessible. The first is more of a citizen, while the second perhaps sees its audience more as consumers.

These initiatives could ease the financial burden on establishments after a decade of austerity under the current Conservative government, but will have an impact on visitors. According research conducted in 2021 by the UK Museums Associationlocal authority spending on museums and galleries fell by 27% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20, from £426m to £311m across the UK.

Another museum abandoning its free entry policy is the Wisbech and Fenland Museum in Cambridgeshire, which announced in April it would start charging for admission for the first time in 100 years as it struggles with rising costs. The museum lost an annual grant of £60,000 from Fenland District Council for running costs in 2018. “The removal of council funding left a hole; indeed, local authorities have been pressured by central government,” says Davies.

Davies points to the larger discrepancy issue that underlies the billing issue. “In terms of the bigger picture, in some museums there’s a confusion about charging. Do the establishments welcome paying international tourists or do they offer a [statutory] public service like a library? Davies asks.

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