If you happen to be in the Big Apple this autumn and fancy dropping in to the Museum of Modern Art for 15 minutes of Andy Warhol (or, indeed, anyone else in their fantastic collection) it will cost you $25 (£16). At the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto you’ll part with $19.50 (£12.50) to explore their galleries, while a splash of sunflowers at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will set you back €14 (£11). But in London – uniquely among world cities – entrance to our major art galleries and museums is absolutely and joyfully free.
Since December 1, 2001, Londoners (along with the rest of the UK) have enjoyed free entry to see everything from dinosaur dung at the Science Museum to Titian’s naked nymphs at the National Gallery. Admittedly it’s not exactly free, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport dedicates an annual budget of around £323 million for government-sponsored musems and galleries – so access to that fossilised shit comes out of our taxes. But given that a West End cinema ticket won’t leave you with much change from £15, surely it’s excellent value for money?
‘You can pop in for five minutes to see your favourite work or you and your family can spend five hours,’ says director of the Tate gallery, Nicholas Serota. ‘As a result, we have some of the finest and most popular museums in the world and it makes London a more welcoming place.’
Artist Grayson Perry, whose own works are on display at the Tate, agrees: ‘I recently popped into the British Museum with my daughter. I only wanted to see one painting but if it was £10 I wouldn’t have gone in,’ he says. ‘If you pay, you feel you are on a mission and that you must stay for ages. For an artist it’s a great resource. I recently wanted to look at a design for wrought-iron blinds so I pedalled down to the V&A. If I had to pay, I wouldn’t do that so readily.’
Free entrance has been a huge success for Britain’s museums and galleries. Attendance has more than doubled since the policy was introduced in 2001. Attractions such as the Natural History Museum have received a 187 percent increase in visitors, the V&A a 180 percent increase; visitors to the National Maritime Museum rose by 204 percent; and at the Science Museum by 102 percent, according to figures from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. And it’s good fiscal sense: the economic benefit of the UK’s major museums and galleries is estimated to be £1.5 billion per year.
The knock-on effect of the entrance policy has been to create a climate where free access to art and culture is taken for granted. This summer, I trampolined in the middle of Stonehenge (well, the artist Jeremy Deller’s bouncy-castle version of the landmark, that pitched up on Clapham Common), built a sandcastle of pink, blue and orange on the Southbank Centre’s beach, and watched, entranced, as an opera version of ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’ wound its watery way along the city’s canals as part of the Olympic cultural celebration, the London 2012 Festival. And that’s even before I made it to the Notting Hill Carnival, the London Mela and a highly entertaining puppet show on Hampstead Heath that involved firing a baby (puppet) out of a cannon. Like the cultural equivalent of a five-year-old let loose at the pick ’n’ mix counter, I’ve stuffed my face this summer – and haven’t paid a penny for any of it.
But could this goodie bag of freebies be about to change? Museums, festivals and events all need money – government money. In a recession, when many Londoners are struggling to pay the rent, is subsidised culture a luxury we can still afford? Last year, arts funding dropped for the first time in five years with London taking the biggest hit. Of 206 organisations that received Arts Council money, 49 lost their funding completely (although the figure partly reflects the huge number of arts organisations based here). Others such as the Notting Hill Mas Bands Association, the Almieda Theatre and Riverside Studios saw big cuts.
‘The arts are obviously not as important as health or education but if they are allowed to wither they are hard to revive,’ says Perry, adding that private sponsorship is no substitute for public funding. ‘If you look at theatre on New York’s Broadway the productions are very safe. It has to make money. The great thing about publicly financed art is that artists can take risks.’
But at a time when we’re all feeling a bit grim, maybe we need to find ways to be cheered that don’t involve forking out money. A survey published last year in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health showed that trips to the theatre, concerts, art galleries and museums are linked to better health and wellbeing.
For now, free admission is likely to remain – Chancellor George Osborne pledged to retain it in a speech at the Tate in 2009, and the policy is regarded as a vote-winner. A spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said that the government is ‘wholly committed to arts and culture and public funding remains the cornerstone of the arts in this country. We’ve negotiated a remarkably good settlement for the arts given the economic conditions, limiting the cut to the Arts Council’s overall budget to less than 5 percent in real terms.’
But is that good enough? ‘Culture is flourishing. It is our second biggest money-maker,’ says artist Anish Kapoor, pointing to the fact that creative industries are the second-largest sector in London’s economy, contributing a significant 7.3 percent to the UK’s GDP.
‘Government ministers meet with bankers every day of the week, but what on earth are they doing by not engaging with those involved in the arts?’ says Kapoor. ‘It’s time to change attitudes.’
If we needed any greater confirmation of the importance of government support for culture we need only look to the most spectacular success of this summer: the Olympic and Paralympic Games. While £9 billion in taxpayers money paid for an unforgettable summer of sport, it also gave us the thrilling Olympic Opening Ceremony (with its dancing NHS nurses offering their own paen to public funding) and the dramatic Paralympic closing show, as well as more than three months of the eclectic London 2012 Festival. A truly inspiring Olympic legacy should include a commitment to sport, alongside a promise to keep Londoners building those multi-coloured sandcastles.