Art Fund director Jenny Waldman on the future of museums: 'The financial model is broken'

Jenny Waldman explains why the annual award was shared by five museums this year, as well as her thoughts on the Culture Recovery Fund

Plans in disarray: Jenny Waldman became the head of the Art Fund just before the pandemic began and while she is concerned over finances, she is heartened by the ‘dynamism’ of Britain’s museums
Plans in disarray: Jenny Waldman became the head of the Art Fund just before the pandemic began and while she is concerned over finances, she is heartened by the ‘dynamism’ of Britain’s museums

Usually the winner of Art Fund’s Museum of the Year – the biggest prize of its kind in the world – gets announced at a ritzy midsummer party. Not this year. Just as the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition was kicked back to autumn for the first time, so the 2020 edition of Museum of the Year was delayed until last night [Oct 12]. There was no ceremony. Just a segment on The One Show, with Grayson Perry on the green sofa at Broadcasting House doing his boosterish best to big up museums in general. 

And the winner was? Well, everyone: all five institutions on the shortlist, ranging from a leviathan – the Science Museum – to a museological minnow in the village of Gairloch (population: 740) in the Scottish Highlands. Along with Aberdeen Art Gallery, South London Gallery, and Towner Eastbourne, they will share a pot of prize money, recognising recent excellence, worth £200,000 – a one-off increase of 40 per cent to acknowledge the “unprecedented challenges”, as a spokesman puts it, of the pandemic. To discuss these challenges, as well as the decision to share the prize, I met Art Fund’s new director, Jenny Waldman, at the 117-year-old charity’s offices in a converted warehouse behind King’s Cross. 

Dressed, on a drizzly day, in deliberately eye-popping red, Waldman – who, in 2017, was awarded a CBE for services to the arts – is a sunny, smiling presence. She laughs when I point out that – following last year’s Turner and Booker Prizes, which were also split – sharing awards has become the thing to do. “Well, this was pandemic-related,” she explains, “because it’s been such a difficult time for museums. This year’s judges just felt we had five potential winners, and that we needed to celebrate the breadth and brilliance of them all.” 

Waldman, the daughter of a professional potter and a barrister, who says, coyly, only that she is “of a certain age”, started at Art Fund at an impossibly inopportune moment, three weeks into lockdown. Fortunately, she says, she’d already had “a great handover” with her predecessor, Stephen Deuchar, whom she credits for the organisation’s “huge growth” over the past decade: “He made it something much bigger and more impactful than just the National Art Collections Fund” – as the charity was called when it was founded in 1903, to help museums hamstrung by inadequate government funding, expand their collections. (In 1906, for instance, following a public campaign, it bought Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus for the National Gallery.)

Today, the self-styled “national charity for art” still raises money to save specific artworks, but it also assists museums and galleries more broadly, and lobbies on their behalf – supported by 159,000 members who pay £73 annually for a National Art Pass, offering free and discounted access to British venues and exhibitions. 

Joint winner: The Science Museum Credit: PA

But her start date meant her ambitions for the charity – which had won her the job – had to go on hold. While considering whether to go for it, she’d come across a fact in Neil Mendoza’s influential 2017 review of English museums: that 52 per cent of British adults visit a museum once a year. “Which is fabulous,” she tells me, “but it also means that 48 per cent of the country do not go to museums – so, that’s a massive opportunity to get more people engaged with arts and culture.”

Ever since her days at London’s Somerset House, where she introduced the ice rink (“I used to call it my fifth baby,” she tells me, “because I had four kids and then I brought up the ice rink for the first 10 years of its life”), Waldman has championed culture for a broad audience. In her previous role as director of 14-18 NOW, Britain’s official five-year cultural programme marking the centenary of the First World War, she commissioned contemporary artists including Jeremy Deller to produce, as she puts it, “mass participation projects, with emotional resonance”. So, she was looking forward to working with the 770 British museums and galleries partnered with Art Fund “to help reach even more of an audience”.

Instead, she immediately had to “pivot” into crisis mode. Swiftly, the charity commissioned a report examining the impact of the pandemic on museums. Then, to address the problems it outlined, Waldman established an emergency fund of £2 million – “a drop in the ocean,” she tells me, before adding proudly, “but we wanted to play our part, and most of the money is out the door already.” 

Towner Eastbourne Credit: PA

Now that many museums and galleries have reopened, how confident is she feeling about the sector’s future? She says she oscillates between “optimism” and fears about an “existential threat”. She is heartened by the “dynamism” of Britain’s museums, which, “over the past 10 or 20 years, have become entrepreneurial organisations.” Yet, she continues, “all those aspects of income generation just stopped. Museums still can’t, say, rent out spaces in the evening for corporate events. So, the reality is that the financial model is broken.”

What about the government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund, though: surely that will help? The first tranche of grants up to £1 million, administered by Arts Council England, was announced yesterday – when two of Art Fund’s winners (Towner Eastbourne and South London Gallery) learned that their applications (for £140,500 and £387,588, respectively) had been successful. (Neither the Science Museum, as a national institution, nor Art Fund’s two Scottish museums of the year were eligible for emergency funds via Arts Council England – though, following yesterday’s announcement, none of the five winners is, Waldman assures me, “at immediate risk”.) 

“We welcome support from the government, and the announcement is very heartening,” says Waldman, speaking to me yesterday, by phone. But she also points out that scores of museums and galleries have petitioned Arts Council England for emergency grants worth up to £1 million: “That so many organisations are facing insolvency now is,” she says, “a sign of how serious things are.” 

Moreover, she continues, this figure represents only a tiny percentage of the total applications received by Arts Council England. In other words, Waldman explains, “relatively few museums and galleries applied for funding, because to be eligible, organisations had to show that they were facing financial insolvency before the end of March 2021.” Those institutions that weren’t going to exhaust their reserves by the end of this financial year – but may, she says, be “in dire financial straits” the next – were “ineligible”. 

South London Gallery 

“So, this investment from the government – albeit a wonderful boost of confidence – needs to be sustained,” she tells me. “We can’t go from a massive cultural recovery fund straight into austerity measures. When the crunch comes next year, we need to make sure that museums and galleries are not forgotten.” 

If public money does dry up, what will happen? Despite recent announcements of mass redundancies at national museums including Tate and the V&A, Waldman doesn’t expect any to go bust. Rather, she’s most concerned about “very important civic museums” funded primarily by local authorities and universities – and, of course, the “really small museums” often run by volunteers. 

Aside from the pandemic, a big trend of 2020 has been the prominent debate about contested heritage sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement. When I ask Waldman about the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol earlier this year, she replies carefully: “Public spaces and museums and galleries are quite different contexts for art.” Seemingly, she agrees with the government’s policy, outlined recently by the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, that “contested” artworks should be re-contextualised, not removed. But she will not be drawn on whether museums should play an active role in the ongoing culture war. “Our basic principle is that we trust museums to run themselves,” Waldman says. 

Jenny Waldman: ‘The judges felt we needed to celebrate the breadth and brilliance of them all’ Credit: Rii Schroer

That said, Waldman adds, it would be a mistake to think of museums as “fusty institutions that just keep everything in aspic”. Rather, she says, “they keep refreshing and reinterpreting, and telling the stories of their artworks and objects in new ways for new audiences.” Just look at the National Gallery’s exhibition about Artemisia Gentileschi, the female Italian Baroque painter, which recently opened to rave reviews: “There’s an artist dismissed for years, now appreciated afresh.” At the show’s heart, Waldman tells me, is a self-portrait by Artemisia in the guise of Saint Catherine of Alexandria – acquired by the National Gallery two years ago, with Art Fund support. 

The fact is, Waldman tells me, “Black Lives Matter was a jolt that helped [arts professionals] think: whose story are we telling, whose works are on the walls, who are we for?” If museums don’t engage with new audiences, she argues, and become “a real resource” involving “local communities”, they won’t endure. 

This, for her, is the big lesson of Museum of the Year 2020. In different ways, she points out, all five winners demonstrate “civic importance”. Even the Science Museum is using its share of the prize to perform experiments in local schools. After all, a profound consequence of the pandemic, she adds, is that “we’re all going hyper-local” in continuing in the majority to work from home. Perhaps, then, Britain’s museums and galleries need to go “hyper-local”, too – if they are to survive.

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