It’s a broad church. It takes in sculpture parks, oak-ploughs piled up in tythe barns, formaldehyde soaked worms in University museums, rows of glass-topped cabinets in gloomy wings of council offices, groups of enthusiasts and their locomotives, bi-planes and bits of the second world war. But many face an uncertain future. If the projected cuts from English Local Authorities are implemented,
In spring 2013 the then Culture Secretary Rt Hon Maria Miller MP affirmed the government’s commit-ment to a ‘mixed economy model’ for cultural funding, meaning that government will only open their chequebook if philanthropists, business donors and sponsors will open theirs.2
The government has not deviated from this position, but it seems an unlikely solution for smaller museums around the country.
Prior to having its own funding cut, Arts & Business (a publically funded charity which was set up to encourage corporate support for the arts) produced research that said as much.3
The obvious answer for museums is to put a price on the door, and this is where the debate currently rests. Fifty nationally funded museums and galleries across the country are statutorily obliged to be free; many smaller town museums and university museums are free of their own volition — although it is hard to put a precise number on this. Even dismissing the obvious barrier for some groups, charging would be no panacea.
The Rough Guide to England says that ‘if you missed Maidstone you wouldn’t be missing much’. It also describes Derby as an ‘unexciting place’, Stoke as ‘unappealing,’ and Luton and Woking don’t get a mention. They also all happen to have several local authority-owned museums which are free to enter. As with private giving, England’s regional museums, off the tourist trail, would gain least from charging for entry. And as one museum director told us recently,
Putting the concrete issue of money to one side, museums need time, commitment and expertise. They need volunteers, members, enthusiastic teachers in local schools, GPs, partisan supporters, small donations from local businesses and a greater day-to-day commitment from local people.
This is a practical need, but apart from anything else it is what John Holden and his co-authors called ‘the kind of solid public support that makes cuts politically dangerous or, even better, unthinkable’. Helpfully for museums looking to cultivate this enthusiasm, there are organisations all over the country who run on a similar kind of energy from whom they might have something to learn:
It’s worth being specific here. There’s no comparison to be made between cash-strapped museums and bloated football clubs, pumped up by oligarchs and multi-million pound television deals. But beneath this top tier, there are modest football clubs who rely on their surrounding communities for more than an appealing backdrop for the TV cameras.
At all levels of the game, football clubs have a more institutionalised commitment to their communities than they once did. Most professional clubs have a charitable foundation doing good works in the community and many others (about 70 per cent in the top four leagues) are associated with a fan-initiated supporters trust, which is a supporter owned cooperative that aims to influence the club. Interestingly, for museums, both of these institutions were reactions to football’s own crises – charitable foundations tried to ameliorate dwindling attendances in the 1980s by improving community relations, and supporters’ trusts were established from the 1990s onwards as a device to temper avaricious owners, asset strippers and reduce the likelihood of clubs being taken into administration.
The presence of charitable foundations and supporters’ trusts appears to be a tacit admission that football is not well categorised or governed as a business. As sports economist Stefan Szymanski and the journalist Simon Kuper put it,
‘They shouldn’t kid themselves that they are BBA Aviation. Rather, they are like the British Museum: public-spirited organisations that aim to serve the community while remaining reasonably solvent.’
Of course community involvement is not necessarily the same as community power. At some clubs, the role of charitable foundations seems to be the inclusion of a local community who are actually excluded by the price on the turnstile.
At others, supporters’ trusts are viewed with hostility and suspicion. In 2013 Ipswich Town actually dissociated itself from its own charitable arm, while the club does little to engage with its supporters’ trust.
But museums should look to football clubs where these two features and the values they embody – community spirit and democracy, respectively – are strongly integrated into the club. They could observe the examples of Exeter City, Mansfield FC and Oxford United, where the supporters’ trusts are strong and each year raise money amongst themselves to pay the wages of one player.
They could look to FC United of Manchester – pin-ups of fan-owned football – who have made a deliberate decision to keep the club’s work in the local community inside the club, rather than as a function of a separate charity.
And they could look to the panoply of smaller clubs like Woking FC where there may not be such sophisticated organisational structures, but there is culture of commitment to the town at all levels of the club. At Woking the manager pays half his salary towards a supporters’ trust for buying players, the club’s community work is run by the daughter of a previous director and the life president is also a major donor to the Lightbox – Woking’s cultural centre.
Museums are as diverse as football clubs. So it is hard to generalise about what one can really learn from the other – those museums which are already independent and run as charitable trusts may have little to learn here, but still, there are general rules of thumb.
After the Football Task Force report of 1999, the Labour government helped establish Supporters Direct – a community benefit society that helps football fans set up supporter-owned cooperatives in England and Wales. It also runs networks in Europe and Scotland and has been instrumental in networking supporters’ groups, transferring expertise and pushing fan-owned football up the political agenda. Crucially, it has amassed a body of evidence that suggests that fan-owned football clubs keep attendances up when the team performs badly and are better at encouraging giving and volunteering. In language the Arts Council likes to use a lot these days, supporter-owned football clubs are more resilient. In these micro-economies, people who cheer on the terraces also shake buckets at the turnstile to fund projects away from the ground, which attracts the sponsors who fund the team, who attract the fans, who bring their friends, who might end up writing the match reports in the programme.
At the last election all three political parties had different policies promoting supporter involvement in the governance of football clubs. It seems a shame that none of them think like this about museums.
And what would The Arts Council’s programme – Resilience13 – be like if it was aimed at encouraging more volunteer wardens, guides, advocates and fundraisers? Museums’ existing membership and friends schemes tend to work like a supermarket loyalty reward card, reducing the cost for regular visitors. While this is laudable,
Sceptics will say that there are limits to museum visitors’ level of interest in running organisations where elite, highly-paid experts hold sway. The popular view is that museums are expert-driven, while football clubs are driven by their supporters. But football clubs have their own professional experts in managers, statisticians, physio-therapists and dieticians. Supporters’ involvement doesn’t supplant expertise in football clubs: if anything, it is there to support and protect it.
Football clubs foster a cultish approach to giving. Football fans accept absurd increases in the price of match-day tickets (£5 football programmes and £4.50 pies) partly because, rightly or wrongly, they view these acts of consumption as a form of patronage in their own right: it all helps the team. At Woking FC, the commercial manager told us how he tries to get supporters to tell him about local businesses they know, so he can approach them to ask about sponsorship.
...everything from a youth team player’s boots to the naming rights of the stadium. Even small clubs run shopping trips, golf days, dinners with ex-players and pre-match meals. And football clubs sell this assertively. The starting point for our project came from an estate agent in Durham who told us that both the football club and the cricket club regularly visited the office to ask for his financial support, but he had never been approached by a museum. Museums might be more squeamish about petty commercialism than football clubs are – but perhaps what matters here is that ‘no contribution is too small’. Today’s pocket-money contributors could be tomorrow’s shirt sponsor.
Football clubs gather supporters around causes that go beyond the match itself. Like museums, they have Victorian civic origins and want to be part of the life and soul of towns and cities. The gathering ritual of the game is a gift in this regard – offering the chance for the crowd to stand in silence for a tragedy, applaud a hero or mark a local event. Many clubs take this a step further by actively aligning themselves with causes and campaigns. Last spring, South London’s Dulwich Hamlet FC staged a football match against an all-gay team (the first of its kind), and more recently it has organised collections for food banks and refugees.
John Orna-Ornstein, Head of Museums at the Arts Council, has called for museums to be more strident in showing how they meet local authorities’ priorities. He might look ruefully at football clubs who have been highly effective at doing this through their charitable foundations. Charlton Athletic runs youth services for Greenwich Borough Council; Brighton and Hove Albion’s foundation Albion in the Community employs 130 people and runs everything from weight management programmes, exercise studies courses and business administration apprenticeships throughout East Sussex. Michael Edwards, director of Albion in the Community, told us that the foundation’s work is unaffected by how well the football team are performing on the pitch.
They can’t ‘outsource’ their community work, and they cannot build it on the tribal emotions football stirs. So perhaps the lesson here is two-fold. First, that football clubs are trying to be a virtuous local presence, and second, that they do this from a different value system. If Orna-Ornstein is right, then perhaps museums need to make this case to local authorities in a language they do not yet speak. Brighton and Hove Albion currently unite under the very un-nuanced slogan that no museum would ever have: ‘One team, one vision’. A healthy civic life must embrace difficult conversations as much as it embraces straightforward, unifying ones. Museums can provide a safe place for these conversations to happen.
Football clubs have much in common with museums. Both do more than just ‘sell’: people have their ashes scattered at football grounds; they get married at museums. Both also have a strange idea of profit: while football clubs get them from intangible glory, museums spend them on intangible things like beauty, memory and loss. Both also face huge financial challenges.
The funding crisis that has hit museums, and the poor management of football clubs, are both symptoms of the same problem: an ingrained, peculiarly British, difficulty in working out what kind of organisations are the best custodians of these endeavours.
Football clubs give too much power to their owners, while museums have their own private interests – elitists able to prioritise their own ‘high arts’ at the expense of others; policy makers who want museums to prove they can solve society’s problems; and straightforward privatisers who believe they should be a business like any other.
Both now have a chance to create a better model for the organisations that support cultural life in this country. In one or two places, they could build it together.
Notes1 DCLG are currently modelling cuts of 25% and 40% – just as they did at the start of the last parliament (Spending Review is published on Nov 25). If these cuts again result in a similar reduction in LA funding for culture (the IFS Briefing Note 166 identifies a 30% cut) a cut of around 2/3rds on 2010 levels by 2020 does not seem unlikely.
2 DCMS (2013) The Rt Hon Maria Miller, Testing Times: Fighting Culture’s Corner in an Age of Austerity
3 Arts & Business (2013) The Private Investment in Culture Survey 2011/12
4 The Guardian 13/01/2014 Public Arts Funding: Towards Plan B Wright, S; Holden, J; Newbigen, J; Kieffer, J.
5 Kuper, S; Szymanski, S. Soccernomics. London, Palgrave 2013
6 Supporters Direct (2012) Briefing Paper No.4 : Business Advantages of Supporter Community Ownership in Football
ThanksArts & Humanities Research Council, Clore Leadership Programme, Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at Cass Business School, City University London, Demos, Kenny Fleming, Matt, Ash & Seb at Modern Activity