Council cuts put free museum entry in doubt
Council-funded museums and galleries across the UK are considering scrapping free entry as cuts bite, the head of the Museums Association has said.
York Art Gallery will introduce a £7.50 entrance fee after the body that runs it had its council subsidy cut by 60%.
That follows Brighton Museum and Art Gallery's decision to charge tourists.
Museums Association president David Fleming said charging for entry was now on the agenda at many other venues that face local council funding cuts.
"I'm absolutely certain that museums all over the country are considering introducing admissions fees in order to try to help plug the gaps that are appearing in their budgets," he said.
But the move would only be successful in towns and cities that attract a significant number of tourists, he added.
Entrance charges at many publicly-funded museums and galleries were dropped around 15 years ago in an attempt to bring in a wider range of visitors.
The government has pledged to keep free entry at venues classed as national museums - such as the British Museum, Tate and National Gallery - which are funded directly by the government.
But that pledge does not cover council-funded venues in towns and cities across the country.
York Art Gallery is one of four attractions run by York Museums Trust, which has seen its subsidy from City of York Council fall from £1.5m per year in 2012 to £600,000 this year.
The gallery scrapped entrance fees in 2002 - but will reintroduce them when it reopens on 1 August after an £8m renovation and expansion.
York Museums Trust chief executive Janet Barnes said she expected further funding cuts in the coming years.
"Given that we've just put £8m into the gallery and it's a much bigger place, we think now is the moment to introduce charging," she said.
"Obviously we would really hope not to, but we just couldn't see any other way of being sustainable in the longer term."
York attracts seven million tourists per year, who are used to paying entrance fees, Mrs Barnes explained.
Income from sources like philanthropy, events and the shop and cafe provide "piddling amounts" compared with admissions income, she continued.
"They're not big enough lumps of money in order to maintain really expensive collections," she said.
"In order to get substantial amounts of money, you have to charge. There's no alternative. Or you have to have public subsidy.
"If the public subsidy's going, then what do we do? Do we just say we'll have to close, or we'll have to close two days a week, or only open in the afternoons?
"It's that sort of thing that you're faced with. And that's no good for anybody. You're on a downward slide."
A City of York Council meeting next week is expected to confirm that locals will be required to pay as well as tourists.
However an annual season ticket will be on offer and those on benefits and aged between 17-24 will be charged half price. Children will be free.
The York decision comes two months after Brighton's Royal Pavilion and Museums began charging £5 per adult to enter Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, unless they take proof that they are a local resident.
Visitor numbers have dropped 50% as a result, according to Royal Pavilion and Museums head of enterprise Abigail Thomas.
But the income generated is expected to hit the target of £200,000 per year, which will make up for this year's cut from Brighton and Hove City Council, she said.
"The other options would have been closing some of the museums or more redundancies, and we have made a number of redundancies already," she said.
"I have to say we've had very few complaints."
Royal Pavilion and Museums' local authority funding is expected to drop from £1.9m in 2012 to £1m in 2017.
Museums Association president David Fleming said museum entrance fees would raise more money in some locations than others.
"It will work in some places," he said. "It might work in York. I doubt very much it would work in a place like Burnley or Rotherham. Those places are not full of tourists who are wanting to spend lots of money in museums.
"I'm sure that museums all over the country will be looking at trying to find other ways of raising income from different places.
"But introducing admission charges to museums isn't necessarily the best way of trying to resolve income problems."
Mr Fleming is also director of National Museums Liverpool, which gets direct government funding to run seven venues, including the Walker Art Gallery, Museum of Liverpool and World Museum.
He is happy with the government's policy of keeping national museums free - but is considering other ways to save money if more cuts are made, as expected.
"It might be closing for certain days, it might be closing for a certain number of hours, it might be closing certain places in order to keep others open," he said. "But somehow or other, you've got to cut your cloth."