May is Museums and Galleries Month - an annual event established five years ago by Loyd Grossman to celebrate museums and galleries all over the country. I always think of it less as an opportunity to recognise well-known, national institutions - which tend to get media coverage anyway - than as a chance to celebrate small-scale, local establishments such as the little Museum of Immigration in Spitalfields and the Ragged School Museum in Limehouse.
Underneath the excitement, however, a campaign is being waged over museum funding. Both the national museums (whose budgetary increases over the past decade have, at best, been extremely modest) and the major regional museums are lobbying the government for extra funds - and with good reason.
It is true that, since coming to power in 1997, the Labour government has mostly stopped cutting grant-in-aid to the extent the Tories did. But it has still not made up the shortfall, nor has its funding generally done more than keep pace with inflation. Some institutions, including the National Gallery and the British Museum, have even seen their funding decline in real terms. The large sums awarded to the national museums at the last spend- ing review were nearly all swallowed up by Chris Smith's admirable policy of funding universal free admission for national museums.
At the same time, the government has (rightly) increased its expectations of what national museums should achieve. Institutions have been encouraged to invest much more in their educational activities, in travelling exhibitions and in partnerships with regional galleries. The benefits of this have been seen recently in the National Gallery's "Making Faces" exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle (which will probably be seen by more than 100,000 people) and in the exhibition of Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks in Manchester.
The difficulty now, seven years on, is straightforward. The government cannot go on raising its expectations of institutions at the same time as diminishing their core funding. Nor can institutions go on improving their commercial performance. Once a museum is equipped with a good-quality shop, cafe and restaurant, and a system for individual giving, it cannot go on making up the shortfall in government funding through improvements in its commercial performance. So the system begins to buckle. And sighs of woe start emanating from the national museums.
This is not yet the disastrous situation that the media like to portray it as. But in the long term, it is bound to lead to a decline right across the museum sector. It is particularly odd that this should be happening at a time when other European governments, including those of Italy, Holland, Austria and Spain, are recognising the benefits of major museum investment.
Once, the major regional museums outside London were the sole responsibility of local government. Rather than being funded by parliament and the Treasury, the great city museums of Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and Newcastle have, as objects of local pride, been financed from the rates. When rate-capping was introduced in the 1980s, the regional museums entered a period of sharp decline, except where (as in Liverpool and, to a lesser extent, Manchester and Newcastle) additional help came from the centre.
This decline has led to calls for the big civic museums to be partly funded by central government, in the same way that regional theatres are funded through the Arts Council. Three years ago, a national government programme called Renaissance in the Regions was established, proposing exactly that. In the last spending round, some money was awarded to regional museums as part of this scheme - how much this has helped is clear if you go to, say, Birmingham, Bristol or Newcastle.
At a recent press conference held at the National Gallery, there was general agreement for the first time that it is in the interests of both national and regional museums to work together in making the case for more funding. The museum sector as a whole is now calling for an additional £115m to be invested during the next three years. In the last spending round, the arts were given an extra £80m. Spending on health and education has increased by many billions over the past five years. So a modest and judicious increase in museum funding doesn't seem that unreasonable.
This, anyway, is the view of Estelle Morris, minister for the arts. As she said in the House of Commons recently: "It is about time we told the story of the importance of museums to society, not only to our past, but to our present and future. The story has always been a strong one, but the sector has not always told it with the strength of voice that it is entitled to use." She continued: "I accept the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has spent extra money and that museums have not had the lion's share. It is now their turn."
I just hope she is right.
Charles Saumarez Smith is director of the National Gallery