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Rising prices and a severe lack of funding are the double whammy that threaten the whole future of public collecting in the UK, according to a new report published by the Art Fund at the end of October.

Based on a survey completed earlier this year, the report, The Collecting Challenge, was commissioned by the country’s biggest independent charity devoted to funding the arts. It highlights what is largely the parlous state of collecting in institutions the length and breadth of the land. Government policy since the late 1990s has given priority to educational resources and access rather than acquisition.

Headline statistics in the report show that only ten per cent of UK museums allocate a fixed proportion of their income for collecting and 60 per cent were unable to allocate any funds at all for acquisitions last year.

Of those replying to the survey, 70 per cent said that most of their acquisitions were gifts.

Despite all this, the overwhelming majority of museums see active collecting as important for attracting more visitors, improving educational resources and maintaining a vibrant and relevant collection.

Not surprisingly, more money and staff are top of the wish list for those wanting to buy more works, but nearly 20 per cent want more information on the art market, how and what to buy and what funding is available to them.

The past couple of years have seen various Art Fund-backed proposals to redress the balance – tax breaks among them – welcomed by Whitehall only to be cast aside by the Treasury on funding grounds. Now the findings here have prompted the Art Fund to renew their call for central and local government to take acquisitions policy far more seriously.

Key proposals this time include:

• Central government should ensure grant-in-aid keeps pace with running costs.

• Local authorities should allocate an adequate sum each year to enable the museums they own to enrich their collections.

• Funding to the National Heritage Memorial Fund should be increased to at least £25m per annum.

• The Heritage Lottery Fund should allocate a larger proportion of its funds to museum acquisitions.

• Funding to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council/V&A Purchase Grant Fund should at least be doubled.

The Art Fund are also calling on central and local government, as well as museum management, to place far greater importance on collecting as an essential part of the future health of museums. The charity call the report a wake-up call and also raise the question of space to show collections and what has long proved the tricky question of selling off underused works to fund other acquisitions.

The Art Fund’s own contribution to boosting museums’ buying power comes in the form of a new scheme made possible thanks to funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. It will mean up to £45,000 per region is available to museums in the East Midlands, East of England and West Midlands to help develop their collections. They are the three poorest regions in collecting terms, according to The Collecting Challenge report.

Under the Enriching Regions: The Art Fund Collecting Scheme, which runs for the next year, museums can apply for up to 100 per cent of the cost of the work (the minimum grant is £2000). Priority will be given to those museums that can also find local funding – perhaps from a patron or local business.

The scheme follows another joint initiative between the Art Fund and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. In June 2003 a £100,000 scheme was launched in Northern Ireland designed to enhance museums and gallery acquisitions.

By Ivan Macquisten