It was Oscar Wilde (via Lord Darlinghurst) who defined a cynic as someone “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”, and dealing with such cynicism is a fact of life for the GLAM sector – the value of what we do is questioned, our funding is cut, and proposed new initiatives are dismissed by people who do not fully appreciate the value of them.
The GLAM sector in New Zealand remains chronically underfunded, and with budgets continuing to shrink and competition for funding becoming fiercer, there is a desperate need to make sure that both politicians and the wider public recognise the important contribution that the sector makes to society before funding levels become critical.
While this year’s Museums Australasia conference highlighted a broad range of important issues and challenges currently facing the sector, it’s debatable whether we got any further forward in formulating the development of a persuasive argument that will convince the doubters of the value offered by the GLAM sector, which means that the struggle to secure funding is going to continue.
Whilst we may not like it, the sector needs to accept that increased scrutiny and a broader spread of funding is now the new normal. The game has changed and going forward, the sector will be forced to find ways to deal with this new normal. It is vital that we act now to ensure that belt tightening does not continue to be an annual ritual.
As a first step to improve the funding situation, the sector would be wise to develop a strategy that highlights the social, cultural and economic value that the GLAM sector offers to our communities. This would mean the sector could stand up and say: “we are GLAM, this is what we do for our communities, here is the evidence, and this is why we deserve more funding”. Suddenly, our funding applications would super powered!
In order to develop this ability, we should draw from national and international experience to identify the value provided by the GLAM sector to communities, and to communicate this value to a broader audience.
Those I leave behind are catching up on me
Social, cultural and economic value comes in a variety of forms, such as: attracting tourists; improving health and education outcomes within communities; or helping to develop an improved sense of social cohesion. The good news is that even the most hardened cynic is likely to agree that the GLAM sector offers at least some value to society, with a good example of this being the limited level of grumbling over the relatively generous funding provided for WWI commemorations over recent years.
Clearly the Government think that funding the WWI and Gallipoli commemorations provides good cultural value (i.e. helping to develop a sense of national pride), and so are prepared to write a cheque to maximise that value. It seems that the general public are quite happy for them to do so too.
However, this relatively generous funding has tended to be the exception, rather than the norm in recent years. Across all areas of the public sector, both government and public alike are increasingly vocal about the need to ensure that they are getting good value for their tax dollar, and expect to see proof of public benefit before they agree to sign any cheques.
While those of us who work and volunteer within the sector are aware of some of the value that we can bring to our communities, we do not necessarily have concrete evidence at hand to back these claims up. We need to be aware of local and international research that has been done in order to build our case, and then be able to communicate this to a wider audience.
For individual institutions in the GLAM sector, it may be straightforward to provide examples of how they provide value to their local communities by highlighting things like the education programmes they’ve developed; their record of recruiting and training volunteers; or their success in attracting tourists to the area. Some of the larger or better resourced institutions might also be able to use their visitor research data to highlight the positive impacts they have on their community in more detail, giving them a better chance to fight their corner and to secure or retain funding.
Unfortunately, our smaller institutions often lack the resources to state their cases in such detail, making it difficult for them to prove their worth and putting their future funding at risk.
Similar strategies that identified and highlighted evidence of the value of the GLAM sector to local communities have already been undertaken overseas, including “A New Partnership Towards Plan A” by the Arts Council and RSA in England, and “Realising the Vision: Delivering Public Value Through Museums and Galleries” in Scotland. Both of these studies highlighted the need to increase public awareness of the value created by Museums, in order to improve funding opportunities going forward.
And proposing such a strategy is not a new or ground breaking idea here in New Zealand either – Museums Aotearoa’s 2005 strategy document “A Strategy for the Museums Sector in New Zealand”, suggested that:
“More needs to be done to develop the case for increased support from central and local government, and from corporate/private sources. In order to build its case for such support, the sector should consider commissioning or undertaking research into its contribution to both economic and social well-being, at a regional and national level.”
Will I walk the long road?
Developing a strategy to highlight the value of GLAM institutions to our local communities could have huge potential benefits for the sector, but getting there will be challenging.
One significant issue to be addressed would be who should be covered by this strategy? Should it only cover GLAM? Should built and/or natural heritage also be included, or should it encompass the wider Arts sector in New Zealand. Concentrating on GLAM institutions would probably result in a quicker and more straightforward project, but it also risks pitting areas of the Arts sector against each other in order to secure funding, to the potential detriment of all concerned.
Once the scope of the project has been finalised, a number of stakeholders would have to come to the party in order to understand how they value the sector. Likely inclusions in this list would be central Government agencies such as the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Social Development, Te Puni Kokiri, ACC and MBIE.
Having reviewed existing research and gained an understanding of the value placed upon the sector by various stakeholders, it would then be vital to seek input from other relevant parties in order to understand how these values relate to the sector here in New Zealand. This should include GLAM staff, volunteers, members, academics, external funding bodies (such as local government), private sector organisations, community groups and, of course, the general public.
This stage of the project could raise difficult questions around the future direction of the sector and around what individuals and communities truly value about the GLAM sector. But these are questions that must be answered truthfully if we are to remain relevant going forward.
Gathering, interpreting and distilling the information to develop this strategy would also be challenging, especially when such a broad consultation would be required. If the data informing the strategy is to be robust and representative, then it is not sufficient to simply create an online questionnaire, send it out and wait for the responses to roll in. We need to make sure that we also locate and listen to those who do not engage with the sector on a regular basis.
To do this, nationwide discussion groups, covering a cross-section of cultural and ethnic groups and individuals would have to be organised, interviewers recruited and trained, and participants identified and encouraged or incentivised to take part.
Ultimately, developing a strategy on this basis requires significant resources – time, money, knowledge and people – which bring us back to that ever pressing issue of funding. Perhaps as a starting point to developing such a strategy, the sector needs to identify and recruit a figurehead who is solely responsible for getting the ball rolling, and who has the skills, experience and mana to secure funding for the strategy and make it a reality?
Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard
Developing a strategy to highlight the values of the GLAM sector would undoubtedly be both hugely challenging and rewarding for the sector in New Zealand. However, it is a challenge that the sector must embrace with some urgency, as without it, I fear that we will become trapped in an ongoing loop of an increasing level of demand for a thinning spread of funding, as recently highlighted by the replacement of the Regional Museums Fund with the broader Regional Cultural Heritage Fund.
More importantly, if the GLAM sector does not have a full appreciation and understanding of the value we bring to our communities, then how can we expect those out with the sector to do so?
If we do not improve our communication of the value we bring to society, the consequence will be that those institutions and organisations who have the ability to shout loudest who will be able to retain funding and stagger on. This will be to the detriment of those smaller, or lesser funded institutions, who do not have the necessary support or resources to make their case for funding, regardless of how deserving they are, or to what extent their value benefits their community. Losing these institutions will undoubtedly make both our sector, and our communities, poorer - a cost that will not be recognised until it is too late.