Public Hangings

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As the economic downturn quickens, museums and galleries across Australia face a new struggle for public funding. Dominated by short-term political expediency, federal and state governments alike tend to view arts and culture as the lowest priority when it comes to spending.

It’s an attitude notoriously summed up in former NSW treasurer Michael Costa’s alleged remark about the NSW Art Gallery: "I hope you realise that if this place burns down we aren’t going to build another one."

At one level the answer to this philistinism is self-evident. No city which aims to be taken seriously in the world can afford to neglect its cultural institutions. We can’t imagine New York without the Met, Paris without the Louvre, St Petersburg without the Hermitage.

But there’s more at stake than civic pride and the tourist dollar. There’s mounting evidence that public museums and galleries play a vital social role, and it’s one that will only grow in importance in a time of recession.

The old stereotype on which the cost-cutters rely is that museums are the resort of the elite. If that was ever true, it no longer is.

Part of the story is told by the attendance figures, which have grown enormously in the past couple of decades. In its short existence, the National Museum of Australia in Canberra has built its visitation to almost a million a year. Since its new venues opened, the National Gallery of Victoria clocks up 1.5 million visitors annually. The Art Gallery of New South Wales achieved 1.35 million last year, while in Brisbane numbers have shot up since the opening of the new Gallery of Modern Art adjacent to the Queensland Art Gallery.

In the regions too, cultural institutions are proliferating, and new research by Museums and Galleries NSW (MGNSW) yields some surprising results about the demographics. The organisation recently published a report, Guess Who’s Going To The Gallery?, the outcome of the first stage of a three year strategic research initiative. Based on more than 2200 interviews with visitors to 12 galleries and museums in the Western Sydney and the Newcastle/Hunter regions, it shows that these institutions are attracting people from a broad social spectrum.

Among its key findings, about a quarter of visitors earned less than $20,000 a year, and nearly half earned less than $40,000 a year. Only one in 10 visitors had a gross household income over $100,000. Less than one third of visitors to these galleries and museums were in full-time paid work and there was a wide spread of education levels.

"The survey shows that it’s not just the so called élite ‘silvertails’ who visit galleries," said Maisy Stapleton, Chief Executive of MGNSW.

Over the years the role of museums has changed significantly. In the 19th century — the age in which many of the world’s best-known institutions were founded — museums were seen as repositories of knowledge for its own sake. Publicly funded, sometimes with the assistance of philanthropists, they gave a home to great national and provincial collections, and were regarded chiefly as the preserve of curators, scholars and researchers. These were hallowed halls where voices were hushed and even the visitors wore gloves.

In the 20th century, museums and galleries increasingly took on an educational role and developed a mass audience — school students included. Crowds became the norm and the noise levels rose. In latter decades, as public funding became more of a struggle, commercial activities were developed to raise revenue. Paying exhibitions became big business, shops and cafés were opened and marketing departments were formed to raise the public profile and attract new audiences.

Craddock Morton, director of the National Museum, recently signalled limits to the commercialisation of museum culture. Five years ago, he said, it was fashionable to see museums as competing in the entertainment business. "Museums have to entertain," he said. "But also to educate, engage, challenge and awe."

Certainly it’s the quality of both the collections and the programs that continues to bring in audiences. And that requires public funding. Even the most successful revenue raisers rarely get more than 40 per cent of their operating budget from their own commercial activities.

When governments start to turn the screw, the question of entrance fees inevitably arises. For 30 years Australia’s longest serving and most successful public gallery director, Edmund Capon of the Art Gallery of NSW, has been at the forefront of opposing such fees. "Over my dead body," he has said. "We have always placed the highest importance on free public access."

The experience in Britain, where entrance fees were introduced under Margaret Thatcher, bears him out. When the fees were lifted in 2001, attendances rocketed.

Earlier this month I visited London for the first time in three years, to find a city king-hit by recession. Unemployment is rising faster in south-east England than almost anywhere except the United States. But the galleries and museums were packed with people of all ages and all social classes, and they weren’t there just to get out of the cold. Everywhere visitors were absorbed, attentive, engaged. You’d have to think that’s healthier than sitting at home in isolation, worrying about the finances.

Our cultural institutions aren’t only a matter of prestige. They have an important role to play in the fabric of our society — particularly when it’s under stress. Public funding for them is an investment in the future.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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