Is this the Age of the Independent? ACE blog by the Chairman of AIM

Dr Matthew Tanner MBE is Chief Executive of ss Great Britain Trust & Brunel Institute in Bristol  and Chairman of the Association of Independent Museums representing 1,000 members in UK.

Arts Council England (ACE) recently invited Matthew to write an article for their blog outlining his thoughts on the release of the ‘Economic Impact of Museums in England’ report published by ACE on March 2nd 2015. You can read his blog at Arts Council England and below.

 Is this the Age of the Independent?

The Economic Impact of Museums in England, published on 2nd March by Arts Council England (ACE), may have had to hide its light under the bushel of the synchronous announcement of the ACE Resilience grants awards, but when the dust has settled it should catch everyone’s attention.

This new research by TBR reflects a picture of the museums sector in England that not everyone would have expected. It shows that independent – rather than publicly funded – museums and galleries are not only by far the most populous type of museums (making up 60% of the total number of museums in England), but they also employ half the workforce in the sector (some 20,000 people), and create and deliver 45% of the economic impact – more than any other part of the sector. In fact, when combined with the DCMS-funded national museums, together they account for a massive 77% of the economic impact of the whole sector.

Why should this be unexpected? On reflection, the image of a typical independent museum as something small, frumpy and local, run on a shoestring, exhibiting low professional standards, and somehow not amounting to much in the way of social or economic impact, has long passed away. Instead many Accredited local museums and special interest museums alike continue to flourish and serve their communities and their tourists, while it is also true to say that many larger independent museums have risen from some such smaller beginning to become significant players as professional museum operations and important tourism businesses too.

SS Great Britain, Museums at Night festival.

This report shows that independents are now frequently mature organisations, with a sophisticated approach to their operation, using a range of subsidiaries and organisation styles to work effectively.

The report also demonstrates the variety and ingenuity that such museums display in earning income to support their charitable activities. They range from widespread activities, such as venue hire and retail, to the more unusual, such as commercial partnerships in computer gaming, model making and filming.

It seems to me that it’s within our vibrant independent sector that much of this innovation is flourishing. Here, a business-like and risk-taking approach is reaping rewards that can be seen not just in economic benefits, but in the many other ways that museums play crucial roles in their communities.


So what does this mean? That this is ‘the Age of the Independent’ is a recent coinage, but it somehow feels right. AIM is poised this year to publish its new AIM Hallmarks of a Prospering Museum that will give a new and simple framework to being a successful independent museum or gallery. Its new Investing in Independence resilience grant received from ACE will put significant new funds into nurturing and supporting the very culture and behaviours that are making these independent museums thrive.

But it is also an age when many Local Authority museum services are being hit and hit hard with savage budget cuts, and quite a few are looking at the possibilities of moving into independent trust status. It is not a panacea, or a sure way to secure new funding – that much seems obvious – it is much harder graft than that! Nevertheless, it will be increasingly essential not only to welcome such moves, but to nurture them. To nurture and support them in a smart transition process and help them off in this new direction without chains holding them back.

It will take time, but it can embed in them a creative, entrepreneurial and risk-taking culture adapted for their particular circumstances, but that is also among the key hallmarks of prospering independent museums and galleries.

Dr Matthew Tanner MBE is Chief Executive of ss Great Britain Trust & Brunel Institute in Bristol, & Chairman of the Association of Independent Museums representing 1,000 members in UK.

March 2015

AIM would like to thank Matthew Tanner, ACE, Shirley Kirk, John Orna-Ornstein and the ACE Digital team for their support.             


Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. We support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2010 and 2015, we will invest £1.9 billion of public money from government and an estimated £1.1 billion from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.

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