Museum grants tied to rise in ethnic minority visitors

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The Independent Online

Britain's most famous museums and art galleries have been told by the Government that they must attract more visitors from ethnic minorities and low-income families or face losing their public grants.

New funding agreements drawn up by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to cover the period 2003-4 to 2005-6 show that 18 museums will have to raise their numbers of C2DE visitors by 8 per cent on the previous financial year. They will be required to increase the number of children that visit their exhibitions by a total of 7 million over the three-year period.

No specific targets have been drawn up for numbers of visitors from ethnic minorities but agreements with the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery say that grants are linked to specific projects designed to attract a more multicultural audience.

A DCMS spokesman said yesterday that failure to meet the agreements could lead to public funding being cut off.

He said: "We have the reserve power to either alter or remove funding from institutions that don't meet the targets or agreements that are set."

In return for their efforts to get a more diverse audience, the four biggest institutions (the British Museum, the V&A, the Tate and the National Gallery) will receive an increase in grant of 3 per cent, slightly below the anticipated rate of inflation.

The funding agreements reveal that the National Gallery - criticised in the past by some commentators for being too traditional - is setting up a project to assist 30 Bengali-speaking mothers from Tower Hamlets in east London to "make a number of sustained visits to the gallery, many travelling by Tube for the first time".

Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Gallery, said the redesign of the building would make it "less intimidating" by allowing people to enter at ground level from Trafalgar Square and not have to climb the steps.

"There's a lot of evidence that non-traditional users who are not used to the National Gallery and what it has to offer can find the entrance intimidating," he said.

Mr Saumarez Smith said he was "profoundly sympathetic" to the Government's "legitimate desire to extend the audiences for national collections" and that the National Gallery had adopted "a very strong missionary" approach since its foundation in the 1820s.

The V&A's funding agreement is linked in part to an exhibition called Dressing Black Britain that looks at the fashions of Afro-Caribbean youth culture and is scheduled to run for four months from next August. Exhibits will include textiles, clothing and accessories.

The agreement states: "The exhibition aims to celebrate the presence of black people in Britain and to stimulate the debate about the importance of clothing and style in the telling of a history of a cultural group."

The exhibition will attempt to make links between the subject matter and issues in the national curriculum such as citizenship and "personal, social and health education".

"It will create a series of narratives on fashion and style among Britain's black inhabitants and by extension promote an understanding of the dress culture of the African diaspora."

Black British communities "will be approached to make suggestions and contributions" to the project, which will include an attempt to capture the spirit of the Notting Hill carnival in photographs.

The funding agreement says: "The intended audience for this exhibition will be people of all ages from the black British communities as well as anyone - from academics through to schoolchildren - with an interest in fashion and the diversity of contemporary British culture."

The V&A, which will receive total public funding of £37m a year by 2005-6, is expected to drive up its visits by children to 315,000 in 2005-6 and the number of C2DE visitors must increase by 8 per cent to 180,000 by the same time.

The DCMS spokesman said that the museums were being encouraged to attract "new audiences".

He said: "Lots of institutions keep statistics on who their audiences are, for their own purposes as much as for ours. We encourage all the bodies that receive our funding to look for new audiences."

Although museum visitors are not routinely asked about their background, the institutions conduct regular surveys through their marketing departments and project the figures to produce annual statistics.

Closing the culture gap

UP WITH THE TIMES ... Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The V&A has tried to overcome its staid reputation. Half of visitors to the Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms exhibition were making their first trip to a museum. Some 70 per cent were from ethnic minorities. An exhibition on Indian cinema last year, The Art of Bollywood, drew 80,000 visitors.

In the summer Life Matters celebrated the talents of disadvantaged young people. It included a paper collage by Michael Alloway, aged 17, titled "Is it coz eyes black?" The artist had not been to a gallery before.

In August, Dressing Black Britain will explore black British youth culture. In September, the museum will put on Exotic Encounters: the meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800.

CATCHING UP WITH THE TIMES... The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery is aware it needs to do more to attract a wider audience than its current visitors, who tend to be white and middle class.

The National's Seeing Salvation exhibition was the most-visited one in Britain three years ago. But the exhibition on Christ was criticised one writer, who said the exhibits were "old art by dead, white European men".

The National is trying to attract more diverse crowds. Late-night Wednesday openings of the Titian exhibition, right, were designed to attract first-time visitors. The same idea is being applied to Bill Viola's video art exhibition, which runs until January. Lecturers have also been sent to deprived areas of London.