The blockbuster Brits and the financial renaissance of our struggling galleries

'Friendship schemes' are proving to be an increasingly lucrative source of income for the top arts venues

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The Independent Culture

Blockbuster exhibitions are becoming an increasingly important way for galleries and museums to recruit members as they look to cope with slashed arts funding and the economic gloom.

It emerged this week that the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts earlier this year prompted 10,000 people to become "friends" of the organisation, as they sought to beat the queues and visit the show more than once. Visitors paid £100 – or a little less on direct debit – for the membership, which allows free entry to any exhibition for 12 months. The organisation has 94,000 friends and, on Thursday, announced a £5.7m overhaul of the facilities catering to their members, which will be completed next spring. Much of the sum for the project was raised from a £10 increase in membership two years ago.

The RA is an independent organisation that receives no Government funding, making the friends scheme a core part of its revenue stream.

The British Museum, which is also overhauling its membership room, saw an uplift in memberships sold during its Grayson Perry exhibition and the recent show, Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam. Julia Brown, membership marketing manager of the British Museum, said: "The flexibility membership brings is so attractive. People can get in even if shows are sold out; they can skip the queues and go as many times as they want. It is about fitting in with modern day convenience."

There have been a series of blockbuster shows in the UK in the past year, and the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions showed an increase at most of the major galleries in 2011 as Britons holidayed at home. That has led to a rise in memberships. Numbers at the National Portrait Gallery have risen from 7,000 in February, at the start of its blockbuster Lucian Freud exhibition, to 11,400. Arts organisations see membership as increasingly important as Government arts funding has been cut. "More than ever before, organisations are trying to rally supporters to help out. Individuals are more important to sustaining the life blood of organisations," Ms Brown said. The Tate has 100,000 members. A spokeswoman said blockbuster exhibitions, including the current Damien Hirst exhibition at the Tate Modern, were a "contributing factor" to the uplift in members.

The funds from members generated about £6m for the organisation last year, with £1.5m going towards buying art for the collection. They also help other projects, including building works.

The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said last year that cultural institutions had been reducing their reliance on state funding and looking for other sources of funding even before the banking crisis. "Not just philanthropy or corporate sponsorship, but membership schemes, commercial income from shops and restaurants or credit card donations schemes; all of them playing an important part," he said.

Institutions had feared the worst as the Government planned to cap charitable donations, which would have hit even harder with the reduced support from the state. However, at the end of last month the Chancellor, George Osborne, reversed his decision.

Damien Hirst, Tate Modern

The blockbuster show, Hirst's first major UK retrospective, is part of the London 2012 Festival. The show split critics, but controversy is usually good at attracting a crowd. New members were lured in by the offer of a private advanced showing and evening events.

Grayson Perry, British Museum

Perry's show, The Tomb of the Unknown craftsman, proved popular with both the public and critics, and was extended by a week until 26 February. "We had an unprecedented spike in membership during the exhibition," said a British Museum spokeswoman.

Lucian Freud, National Portrait Gallery

Visiting hours were extended at the gallery a month after Lucian Freud Portraits opened, to keep up with demand. At the start of the show there were 7,000 members. That has risen to 11,400 following the gallery's most successful-ever paid exhibition.

David Hockney, Royal Academy

A Bigger Picture brought together 150 Hockney works, many from the past eight years. It was met with huge acclaim and pre-booking for the show, which opened in January, sold out to March. Almost 10,000 new "friends" signed up and opening hours were extended.