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Will Museums be a Casualty of the Cost of Living Crisis?

High energy bills and pressure to provide warm banks for the public are threatening the cultural sector’s recovery from the pandemic

The British Museum in London. Photo: Batchelder/Alamy

Will Museums be a Casualty of the Cost of Living Crisis?

High energy bills and pressure to provide warm banks for the public are threatening the cultural sector’s recovery from the pandemic

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The arts, entertainment and cultural sector has barely recovered from the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns, only now to find itself facing a new crisis: energy bills and the cost of living. 

Museums, theatres, cinemas and concert venues are all braced for rising gas and electricity costs hitting already squeezed budgets, with Suzie Tucker of the National Museum Directors’ Council telling Byline Times: “We’re hearing of bills rising astronomically, with serious impacts on budget forecasts for this year and next.”

Analysis published last year by Sheffield University found that, during the Coronavirus pandemic, the arts and entertainment sector suffered from a 60% decline in output due to social distancing rules and lockdowns, with 55% of staff furloughed. Those worst affected institutions were museums, cinema and historical sites. 

Post-pandemic, museums were seeing green shoots of recovery, with Art Fund research showing an upward trend in income and visitors returning – 68% and 61% of pre-pandemic levels respectively. However, the pandemic exposed the fragility of the sector and now, with energy bills on the rise, museums are at risk once again. 

“Revenues are still in recovery after the pandemic closures, and some audiences – particularly international tourists – are yet to return to 2019 levels,” said Tucker.

Rising Costs

The recent Government announcement of the Energy Price Guarantee means the average household will face bills of £2,500 come October. But such a cap does not apply to businesses or institutions such as museums, leaving the sector concerned about how it will make ends meet as gas and electric costs soar.  

In August, the Museum Association warned that some institutions were saying they face “staggering” hikes to their energy bills. Many museums expect bill increases of 300 to 500%.

“How quickly and severely the impact of cost increases will be felt varies depending on where museums are up to in their current energy contracts,” said Tucker. “Museums are particularly hard hit by rising energy bills due to their historic buildings and the requirements of caring for collections.”

A Guardian report revealed how the Lowry Museum in Manchester faces a bill “substantially higher” than the £860,000 annual grant it receives as an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation, with energy costs projected to reach £1,000,000.

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“Some museums are already having to make difficult choices including reducing opening hours and saving energy by turning off air conditioning and other buildings systems,” said Tucker. The Museums Association reported how Tullie House, in Carlisle, has upped its entry fee to cover a 138% increase in its annual fuel bill.

But this risks creating a catch-22, with ALVA Public Sentiment research showing that the cost of living has now overtaken COVID-19 as the principal reason to not visit an attraction.

Warm Banks

While some museums have had to put up their prices, many museums across the country are free to enter, creating a democratic approach to culture which means no family has to be priced out of art, science and knowledge. 

This free status means that museums have been marked as potential ‘warm banks’ – places where those struggling to pay energy bills can go to get warm in order to keep their household costs down. 

However, with museums struggling to pay for their gas and electricity, there is concern about the additional pressure of becoming warm banks for the general public. 

The Museums Association is putting pressure on the Government to take “urgent action” to help museums weather the energy crisis storm, with a spokesperson saying that “support should be put in place to ensure that museums are able to act as warm spaces for communities during the winter; and maintain the standards required to care for public collections”.

“We are in active conversation with Government and sector funders to keep them informed of the situation and discuss how to support museums through the crisis,” said Tucker. “Like other sectors we await further details of Government plans to support businesses and charities.”

A spokesperson for the Arts Council said that it knows “these are challenging times with the impact of the energy crisis and cost of living affecting us all” and that it has “heard how this is specifically affecting cultural organisations and creatives, including those in receipt of Arts Council funding”.

“We’re exploring how we can support the sector through this difficult time, whilst balancing the fact our own resources are limited,” they added.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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