Politicians love the symbolism of numbers, and perhaps none is more symbolic than the number ten. Things that come in units of ten are readily graspable. The 10:10 campaign was a hit because of its simple call to action – to reduce carbon consumption by a tenth during the course of 2010. Similarly, a decade is just long enough to mark a period of change while at the same time not being so long that it is outside of living memory for the majority of the voting public. It hardly needs adding that the very centre of political power in the UK is a house with the number ten on its front door.
Right now there are two major developments in cultural policy that hinge around the number ten. The first of these is the Legacy10 campaign, launched earlier this week by the Chancellor George Osborne at Tate Britain. The campaign seeks to encourage the public to provide for legacies in their wills, by offering them a fiscal inducement. Pledge 10% of your estate to charity, and the Revenue will reduce the rate of inheritance tax that applies, from 40 per cent to 36 per cent (eg a 10 per cent reduction). It’s a firm pledge of the Government’s commitment to promoting philanthropy, and I hope it succeeds. So too does Jeremy Hunt, who has made philanthropic giving to the arts one of his priorities as secretary of state for culture.
The other development is the tenth anniversary of the introduction of free admission to the national museums. I have just been invited to a gathering devoted to marking this historic day, although more properly the invite should have been to a party to celebrate ‘the reintroduction of free admission to some of the national museums’. In fact only ten or so of the national museums introduced charges over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, while the rest (which included the British Museum, National Gallery and Tate) remained free.
Pedantry aside, I have a theory which links these two developments. It may not be a popular one. But I think it may explain why the Government is struggling so hard to get real movement on philanthropic giving to the arts.
The theory is simple. The 10 years of free admission have created a dependency culture within the larger museums, which in turn has made the ‘ask’ around charitable giving so much harder than it was before.
Let me explain. By making the museums free, which was only possible with substantial amounts of taxpayer funds (and foregone VAT receipts), the association between the national museums and the Government was made ever closer in people’s minds. This immediately creates a barrier to giving. After all, why should the visiting public put coins into collection boxes at institutions that are funded in ever increasing amounts from the public purse?
Keeping a charge on the front door may have helped to communicate the message that the national museums are not a cost-free endeavour. It would have signalled that these places rely on private donations for their ongoing success, which in turn may have encouraged greater giving. Conversely, who would think first of giving their private income to a ‘free’, publicly funded organisation?
As it is, the national museums have been pretty smart at fundraising in recent years (as the new figures issued by DCMS show). But their fundraising model is one that depends, in large measure, on sizeable one-off donations by the hyper-wealthy (witness, the Sammy Ofer wing at the National Maritime Museum, the Ondaatje Wing at the National Portrait Gallery, and the Hintze Galleries at the V&A). Other charities thrive on a model of far smaller donations made by lots of people, whether in the form of coins in collection boxes, donations on the door, or small annual gifts (through membership or other schemes). The national museums do some of this, but would prefer to chase very wealthy individuals – which explains their reluctance to support a simplified version of Gift Aid (they would rather keep the two-tier approach, so that their higher rate donors can guarantee maximum tax efficiency).
Of course, free admission has had lots of successes as a policy. The ten years since it was introduced have seen a doubling of visit numbers through the doors of the national museums that previously charged. But as I once argued in an article for Cultural Trends, the degree of change in the profile of the audience has been less spectacular – there has been only limited success in changing the social or ethnic composition of those audiences. This must mean that the policy has subsidised additional levels of access to the museums for people who were already committed visitors.
The issue of charging for admission to the national museums is now a fairly toxic one for politicians to engage with. Any suggestion that an entrance fee should be levied on access to the permanent collection of the publicly funded museums is met with the instant charge of elitism or cultural vandalism. Successive ministers shy away from offering opinions on free admission that are anything other than wholly adulatory. This alone means the policy has been a success in political terms.
Yet the notion of ‘free admission’ is somewhat oxymoronic. Nothing is free – everything has to be paid for, and as everyone knows the costs of living are rising inexorably (not least for energy-hungry permanent collections). 'Free’ admission has in fact been funded through increased taxpayer contributions. Taxpayers have, in effect, subsidised the queues of families that can be seen lined up on Exhibition Road any given half-term holiday. But after 10 years of plenty, we now face 10 years of want. Ministers expect the gap in funding for the national museums to be met by increased private philanthropy. Should they really be surprised if the free-entry-loving public chooses to demur?