Funding story: Visual arts

Efforts to keep works of art in the UK struggle against declining funds and the view that high art isn't charitable.

Funding for visual arts is even harder to find than funding for performance art. One funder quoted in consultant David Carrington's 2005 report Corporate Foundations and the Not for profit Arts Sector said that "high art is not charitable", and this view certainly isn't unique. In fact, statutory and lottery funders appear to consider it even less important than voluntary sector supporters do.

The Wolfson Foundation, which says it "awards grants to back excellence", has more than doubled its annual grant to art charity the Art Fund (which awards its own grants to UK museums and galleries to buy specific works). This new funding, £500,000 a year for the next three years, consolidates the Art Fund's new position as a leading grants body.

"Broadly speaking, over the past 10 to 15 years the money from central and local government for the purchase of works of art has been in steep decline," says David Barrie, director of the Art Fund. "To some extent, this was masked by the arrival of the lottery - in its early years the Heritage Lottery Fund spent a great deal in this area, but over the past three years we have given more than twice as much as this fund to help museums purchase of works of art."

The National Heritage Memorial Fund, a government fund that supports emergency acquisitions, has had its budget doubled to £10m, but this covers everything from cathedrals to coastline. Additionally, the international art market has boomed, says Barrie.

"It's still the case that the National Heritage Memorial Fund will give grants we cannot compete with, but overall we are the absolute sheet-anchor for museum acquisitions," he says. "We're often the major and sometimes the sole contributor."

The Art Fund's position is uncompromisingly that "art has the power to transform people's lives", and that by extension it should be as widely available as possible. However, there is no way - even with the new funding - that the fund can compete with private collectors who can, as Barrie puts it, "outspend the Getty or the Louvre". Unless more funders decide that high art is charitable, it's going to become increasingly exclusive.

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