Museum staff told: you're history

Glasgow's gallery chief would rather sack 55 than charge pounds 1 admission fee. Susan Emmett reports
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The Independent Online
The Director of a city's cash-strapped art galleries and museums has said he would rather sack dozens of staff than introduce admission charges.

Julian Spalding, director of Glasgow Museums, faces a budget cut of six per cent. Introducing charges, as was done at London's Victoria and Albert Museum last week, would make up the cash shortfall. Instead, Mr Spalding has told 55 of his 400 employees that their jobs are on the line.

"The introduction of charges at the V&A, set in train a decade ago, is a diminution of a great tradition. It is time we cleared the field of the charging knights," he wrote last month. "Charging would be suicide. We'd lose many of our local visitors, particularly the less advantaged."

The affected staff are angry at the prospect of losing their jobs. "Charging for entry isn't something we are keen on at all, but at the end of the day losing 55 jobs is no good," said Duncan Ferguson, senior steward for Unison, the union that represents the staff involved. "Introducing charges is inevitable in the long term. It's the way of the world."

Mr Spalding argues that charging fees immediately reduces attendance at museums. Although it is too early to judge how the new pounds 5 entrance fee will affect the V&A, attendance fell by over 700,000 visitors a year after "voluntary donations" were introduced in 1985.

The change in the type of visitor that follows the introduction of charges is just as worrying to Mr Spalding. "The less well-off, those who live further away and those who want to pop in regularly to see just a few things depart. In come the tourists, better-off locals and specialists who, through professional connections, find ways of not paying at all."

A Glasgow City Council move to reduce funds is putting his beliefs to the test. "Glasgow Museums has been asked to look at proposals for a six per cent reduction of our annual spend," said Mr Spalding. "We are in the very early stages of assessing the impact of such a cut and have made outline proposals to staff and unions. In spite of this, we intend to maintain free access to our museums and galleries."

Yet angry staff and union members say Mr Spalding has not properly considered other alternatives, blindly opting to axe jobs. The proposals also include employing new people on lower salaries to replace some of the lost staff.

Mr Ferguson dismissed what he regards as a short-sighted and short-term solution to a bigger problem. "A one-off is useless," he said. "We should be looking at a solution that can be sustained." Many staff see entrance fees as that solution.

Staff are also angry that Mr Spalding has approached them with the news before putting the proposals to the city council, which has a "no redundancies" policy. Mr Spalding is due to announce his proposals at a routine meeting with the arts committee of the council on Tuesday.

Staff and union members will be putting forward their own proposals to charge an initial entrance fee to all the museums this week. A pounds 1 entrance fee would raise in the region of pounds 750,000 a year - easily enough to cover the six per cent (pounds 168,000) budget cut. A higher fee would be in line with those charged by many of Britain's leading museums and galleries.

These are not the first job losses to affect staff at Glasgow museums. Earlier this year, 80 museums and galleries personnel were forced to take early retirement to absorb a budget cut of pounds 1m for the financial year 1996/7.

The cut was accompanied by the closure of the city's museums for one day a week to avoid charging fees.

About half of Britain's museums now charge. The trend began in 1984 when the National Maritime Museum started charging pounds 1.50. Since then the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Imperial War Museum and now the Victoria and Albert Museum have started asking visitors for money.

The V&A's decision to introduce entrance fees, announced in May, followed a pounds 1m cut in government grant-in-aid for 1996/7. A similar cut for the following financial year is expected, slicing the budget to pounds 29.5m for 1997/8.

"The amount of money which national museums are receiving is going to decline and continues to decline," said the director of the V&A, Dr Alan Borg. "The situation is not going to improve."

The Department of National Heritage directly finances 16 museums and galleries, but all these institutions have other sources of income. The extra cash might come from endowments, sponsorship, retail, catering and admission charges.

There is no government policy either to impose or prohibit admission charges. Each institution must make a decisionbased on its own financial circumstances.