what next for the great art galleries of the North?

Squeezed between successive waves of lockdowns and restrictions, galleries in the north of England are being forced to rethink their business models. For institutions such as Manchester Art Gallery, or Bluecoat in Liverpool, the Culture Recovery Fund has provided a temporary lifeline, but questions remain as to what will happen after March.

Even prior to this second national lockdown, visitor figures had been restricted to accommodate social distancing: Baltic in Gateshead, which would welcome 3,000 on a good Sunday, hit capacity last weekend at 500. The entrepreneurial culture of the last two decades, under which arts organisations were encouraged to generate significant income from commercial activities, now appears unsustainable.

“What we’re seeing is a complete collapse of our income model,” explains Sarah Munro, director of Baltic. Support from Arts Council England, Gateshead Council and Northumbria University accounts for about 60 per cent of the gallery’s budget. Until this year, car parking, retail, café and events catering made up the rest.

That shortfall, Munro says, “is the bit I’m focusing on, into the next financial year. Where could we start to save costs?” Baltic is a registered charity; it did not apply for a CRF grant, instead relying since March on “a package of government support – the furlough scheme, exhibition tax relief and business rate relief.”

The first area to sustain cuts is the programme. “We were holding between eight and 12 exhibitions per year – now we’re looking at six.” Munro says that she would countenance taking that down to four shows a year if it meant the building could remain open, and attention pivot to support more local artists through project work.

“We’re less thinking of ourselves as a centre for contemporary art, and more as a civic institution. What is it that our communities need us to be at this time? What can we all do to help communities in the north-east?”

Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth received CRF grants of £780,022 and £428,223 respectively. “That saved us,” says director Alistair Hudson. “We can deliver a balanced budget for this year. It’s been a huge relief, but obviously only until March 31st . And then we are into the next phase of whatever the world throws at us.”

Manchester was placed under local lockdown at the end of July, so the Art Gallery only reopened in late August, and the Whitworth mid-September. The region was then placed under Tier 3 restrictions on October 23, ahead of the national lockdown on November 5. During that short reopening period, not only were admissions restricted but also the kinds of educational and community activity permitted in the galleries. They will remain so, as long as Covid-prevention measures are place. For Hudson, who is known in the museum sector for his commitment to art as a tool for education and social change, these restriction have been “pretty disastrous, to be honest.

“Normally, both galleries are buzzing with people: families, activities, workshops, religious festivals, school groups, mother and toddler facilities: the works. All now you can do now is art gallery is the traditional mode: people quietly walking around looking at pictures.”

This sense of local commitment, of galleries providing a social as well as a cultural space for their broader community runs deep. “In the regions you live closer to your audience,” says Marie-Anne McQuay, “You really need to understand that we are here for a public, and that public has to be able to access you.” After Bluecoat re-opened on July 30, visitors returned quickly. “Most days, we reached our capacity, because people wanted something to do that was enriching, but that felt safe, because you were in an enormous gallery.”

Bluecoat received £374,564 over two rounds of CRF grants, largely making up for lost income from conference hires, weddings and rent. It has also allowed them to offer financial support and mentoring to five artists in the region. Going into this second lockdown, says McQuay, “feels more like June than March,” since Bluecoat can keep its artist studios and facilities open, and education programmes will continue online.

Looking forward, organisations are considering a comprehensive transformation of both their income models and their programming. At Baltic, which was conceived as a site for temporary exhibitions along the European Kunsthalle model, this is likely to be a period of significant change. Munro sees a paradigm shift for arts institutions in the North, one she describes as “a transition”.

Hudson sees museums like the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery moving away from resource-hungry temporary shows, and renewing focus on their collections. “I had already been propositioning the end of the exhibitionary era, for ecological reasons, for economic reasons, and social reasons as well,” says Hudson. “This has accelerated it.”