Let’s face it, our free museums subsidise tourists

The fall in the number of domestic visitors is staggering

David Lister@davidlister1
Friday 27 February 2015 17:00

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has issued a press release headlined: “Latest statistics for Government-sponsored museums show two million more visits were made than previous year.”

How wonderful that sounds. How less than wonderful it actually is. Congratulations to Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts man, for going beyond the call of duty and actually reading the data, right down to the small print, and discovering that the boom in attendance is actually being driven by overseas tourists, with domestic visitors providing much less welcome news.

In the case of The National Gallery and The Tate Galleries, UK visits over the last six years have actually dropped by a staggering 20 per cent since 2008/09. The National Gallery has lost half a million domestic visits, while the Tate lost around a million, This must have been painful for Mr Gompertz to discover, as in a previous life he was the communications whizz kid at the Tate, selling it to the wider world. It must have been a little painful for him, too, to discover that the present spokespeople at the Tate, some of whom he may well have trained, weren’t even aware of the drop in numbers.

But the fact is that UK visitors at the Tate now account for only 50 per cent of its total audience. One reason given is the UK’s event culture which results in a lot of people only going to the blockbusters. Mr Gompertz urges his former colleagues in the marketing departments not just to ‘sell’ the blockbusters, for which visitors have to pay, but to spend more time promoting the free permanent collections.

I think that there is a much bigger debate to be had than that. Surely, the whole question of free admission has to be addressed once more. I say this hesitantly, as I was one of the early campaigners for free admission. But I, and many others involved in that campaign, argued the case on the basis that free admission would benefit UK residents, and allow them to visit these wonderful collections over and over again. Had we known that the effect of free admission would be to subsidise tourists, I suspect we might not have been such passionate advocates for the cause.

It isn’t yet time to say that we should dispense with free admission. Too many benefits would disappear with it. But it is time to renew the debate, knowing as we now do that the number of domestic visitors to two of our most famous institutions are low, and falling.

And perhaps, in future, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could be a little more honest in its public pronouncements and give us the full picture about the state of the arts, not just the positive spin.

Essential reading for those destroying our libraries

Surveys come and go, but I did find one arts survey published this week rather interesting. The 24 Hour Culture Survey asked more than 2,000 people in the West Midlands what cultural activity they had taken part in over a 24 hour period (which included a Friday night). No, going to a movie did not come top, nor did a gig, not the theatre nor going dancing. The most popular cultural activity was spending time in the local library. As libraries across the country suffer ever more cuts and closures, this finding will, I hope, give both government and local authorities pause for thought.

Does Sir Simon Rattle protest too much?

The great and the good of the arts world have rushed to back Sir Simon Rattle in his demand for a new concert hall in London. The acoustics in the current halls are simply not up to standard for the capital. Indeed, it’s hard now to find any dissenting voices among the cognoscenti about the poor standard of acoustics. Yet, I have these strange memories of being told for years and years by the Barbican and its resident orchestra the LSO, which hopes to lure Sir Simon, that theirs is a world-class concert hall. Never a murmur about bad acoustics. And weren’t many millions of pounds spent not so long ago on redeveloping the Royal Festival Hall? And wasn’t I shown round it when it reopened and told how marvellous the acoustics were? No, it must all have been a dream.



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