Suffolk County Council proposes a 100% cut to core culture funding
On 3 January, the Food Museum was contacted by Cllr Bennett, Cabinet Member for Equality and Communities, to inform us that our core funding of £102,500 from Suffolk County Council would come to an end this year. The cut was to be immediate, however the Council had found spare Covid-related funding to give us the equivalent of a year’s grant to avoid a cliff edge. The proposals will be voted on by councillors at a full council meeting on 15 February.
The proposed cuts cover all the core funding that Suffolk County Council gives to museums and arts organisations. This funds 9 organisations and amounts to £528,000. The organisations are the Food Museum in Stowmarket, the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, the Long Shop Museum in Leiston, the New Wolsey Theatre, DanceEast and Eastern Angles in Ipswich, Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, FirstLight Festival in Lowestoft and Suffolk Artlink.
Whilst the cuts mean different things to each organisation, Suffolk County Council’s grant amounts to about 13% of the Food Museum’s core funding. It comes hot on the heels of Covid which impacted our ability to raise money from other sources (for example, weddings and private events). We do not have the reserves in place to cover even half of the proposed cut.
We budget on a break-even basis, so we are unlikely to be able to absorb the cut without reducing or ending services and raising prices. However the implications are wider than this. Suffolk County Council’s support is an important marker of stability for other funders and gives us the platform from which to apply for project funding. Each year we have to put together a jigsaw of interlocking pieces of funding to enable us to stay open – Suffolk County Council provides a critical piece which locks in others.
In the 21st century, a museum does a lot of different things. We are, at our core, a place of education. Not everyone thrives at school. The Food Museum is somewhere you can go at any age to learn, to hear a range of opinions and ideas about our past, present and future presented cogently and transparently. The learning we offer is in the landscape as well as in our collection of 40,000 objects. We are a green space with 84 acres of woodland, meadow and river landscape within walking distance for 23,000 people; we have 50 community allotments, farm animals and 18 historic buildings.
Suffolk County Council recognise the positive impact of our work on our local community – on health, happiness, the economy and education. For every £1 they give us, we raise £9 more. We work with all kinds of people of all ages to support their wellbeing, but perhaps more importantly to give people a sense of community in an age where despite much connectivity, they can feel very isolated. At this present moment, this includes individuals who have suffered life-changing accidents, the recently-bereaved, disabled people and children in receipt of free school meals. It also includes schools, businesses, other charities and social and support groups.
As well as the direct intervention work we do with individuals, we are a source of local pride. Our forebears recognised the importance of having places of lifelong learning within the reach of the community. Suffolk County Council (or East Suffolk as it was then) was instrumental in setting up the museum in the 1960s and is still a custodian trustee of the Food Museum’s estate.
Suffolk County Council does not have its own museum service. It appears that its annual budget for museums is approx. £250,000 to cover staff, some activity through the Association for Suffolk Museums (£2,000) and direct grants: £102,500 to us, £28,500 to Gainsborough’s House and £13,500 to the Long Shop in Leiston. In comparison, Norfolk County Council runs 10 museums directly, and has a multi-million-pound budget. Suffolk’s residents are not getting as good a deal as their neighbours (except perhaps in Ipswich, where Ipswich Borough Council supports Colchester & Ipswich Museums Service with an annual grant of just under £1 million).
The average spend per head on museums by district and county councils across the UK is £3.54. (2019-20 figure from ‘Local Authority Investment in Museums after a Decade of Austerity’). Suffolk has a population of c.760,000, which should equate to a spend of £2.7m if we want to be at least average.
The state of local authority funding of culture is getting worse – not just in Suffolk. The Museums Association’s recent study has calculated that ‘Across the whole UK, local authority spending on museums and galleries declined between 2009/10 and 2019/20 by 27% in real terms from £426m to £311m.’ We recognise that Suffolk County Council is facing budgetary pressures which are the result of austerity measures and central government decisions. However our taxes should support good services for local residents and, for one of the wealthier countries in the world, this has to extend further than social care.
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