Remember the turn of the millennium? An era associated with shiny new buildings and the launch of major gallery projects across the country, when culture was used as an engine for regeneration. Alongside the big-money projects, there was a demand from government and funders that cultural institutions demonstrate an impact on "real people". No longer could high art be ghettoised, now that it was financed through the Lottery. Culture had to provide lessons on how to be good citizens. Diversity and accessibility became all the rage, with museum and gallery managers filling in byzantine funding applications on the benefit to society of the arts, and launching project after project that had only a passing connection to collections or core business.
The vogue for "citizenship" now appears to have passed. How committed most institutions were anyway to working with communities is questionable. Community work became an exercise in ticking boxes, when we had to take on board that not everyone believed in the intrinsic value of the arts, and funding was dependent on our ability to demonstrate instrumental value.
The initial wave of such work came broadly in two forms. First, there was a swath of initiatives connected with people's entitlement to culture. At their core was the message that mere association with great art could open the smallest mind. Wheel in a group of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, sit them in front of the right painting and their lives would be enhanced. Never mind the irrelevance to their lives; never mind that they doubtless had a number of cultures in which they already participated - this was all about ticking the right boxes while not actually doing anything very different.
Second, there were the press-worthy projects; those usually launched from the marketing department. These were often petitions or campaigns, designed to have broad social impact, built on (often literally) flashy websites. After the money had disappeared into the wallets of web developers, they usually failed to have much impact on anyone at all. But they looked good in the annual report.
Return to elitism
With a return of the notion of excellence, the changing atmosphere seems to have been met with a sense of relief that we can go back to doing what we've always done. Community projects and outreach work can be safely abandoned. Funding is no longer reliant on such things, and the prospect of a public school-educated Tory government suggests elitism will be the new Stygian hue. In financial terms, things haven't changed, however. The funding for major museum works is still there and is seemingly unconnected to the needs of much of the population, if the recent work on the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is anything to go by. Over £60m spent and an aim for only 500,000 visitors a year? The cash might have been mostly provided by private trusts and funds, but it demonstrates the irrelevance of such work to the majority of ordinary people.
In the likely event of a new government taking power next year that is committed to public spending cuts, the major national museums will be fine. The money, whether from charitable trusts or from government departments, will continue to flow to them. The funding - though lessening - for major work will also still be there. Rich men will still want to have gardens named after them; exhibitions of treasures stolen during imperial conquest will still need the imprimatur of the social elite. But for regional museums, for the locally funded and supported, even for university museums, the only likely impact is straitened circumstances.
Yet there's a trick being missed here. When funding cuts come, they will come first to the arts - unless the sector deploys a counter argument. In the world outside, the recession is already biting hard. And, over and above the debate about instrumental value, galleries and museums have a vital contribution to make in helping improve the lives of their neighbours, their funders (through taxation and Lottery tickets) and their audience.
This is especially true in times of recession. The impact on jobs and on the future levels of aspiration among young people is beginning to register. But the impact on the health and well-being of the average man, woman and child has barely begun to take effect. Recessions are about illness, depression and the ending of hopes, as much as they are about the economy.
Museums and galleries have a duty and an opportunity in all this. Publicly funded neutral spaces, guardians of the long-term souls of their communities - there are no better institutions to tackle the loss of hope implied by recession. And this contribution is immensely valuable in terms of dealing with the long-term impacts of recession on individuals, communities and the economy as a whole.
Arguing the case
It's time, then, to declare a wider purpose for the museum and gallery sector. At first sight, this may seem unlikely to catch the eye of the incoming government, which will be aiming for cuts first and a review of their long-term impact later. But the worst thing that culture could do now would be to withdraw into its shell, worry about its future funding and ignore the wider issues affecting society. That would achieve nothing. Worse, it would reinforce the arguments of those who see the sector as first in line when cuts to public spending are mooted. But the museum and gallery sector could offer an impressive bang for its buck if it presents its arguments correctly.
Projects that are to make a real difference need to learn from the mistakes of the box-ticking era. There needs to be real, long-term engagement with communities. These cannot be one-week, one-month or six-month-long projects, where the participants are waved goodbye to at the door and never thought of again. They need to be co-created with the people involved, rather than made in a marketing office and thrown out in the general direction of a specific target "problem". And they need to be entered into with honesty and passion.
At the heart of museum community work, when done well, is actually a very Conservative philosophy - self-help. It's about giving people back control of their lives, allowing them to explore the issues facing them and their communities and to make the sometimes difficult choices only people on the ground can really make. Offering this sort of space, this sort of independent and committed involvement in developing solutions for individuals and communities, could and should be the focus of museum community engagement. This is about ensuring that an audience for galleries and museums survives. More than that, it's about ensuring that our cities, our economy and our cultures survive. But it's also a way of ensuring that the sector has a real role to play in helping the country to get back on its feet.
Vaughan Allen is the chief executive of Urbis
Making an entrance
According to Mark Taylor, director of the Museums Association, 1979 was a disastrous year: "There was an attempt by the Thatcher government to follow the American model - more freedom for museums, less control from above . . . it was every man for himself."
The genesis of New Labour precipitated a sea change: "They had a greater understanding of the role culture plays in all aspects of life. There was a push for museums to be part of government agendas, and it meant they could carry out a wider range of activities."
Labour also abolished entrance fees to 20 major national institutions. Visitor numbers skyrocketed and free museums have become cemented in the public's mind as an inalienable right, something an incoming Conservative government would be loath to dismantle.
Similarly, since 2003 the "Renaissance in the Regions" programme has provided almost £300m in funding for local museums, but its continuation beyond 2010 is far less certain. Taylor, however, sees the new generation of Tories as far less doctrinaire about public funding of the arts: "All indications are that the Conservatives understand the multifaceted nature of museums better than the Thatcher government."
Another good sign is that, in line with the recession, visitor numbers are booming: "As life seems more depressing, people turn to cultural pursuits, which is good news for us," says Taylor.
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