Now it is London museums bleating about Brexit. A memo from the V&A released under Freedom of Information laws, warns darkly: ‘we will struggle to keep the museum open to the public in the immediate short term’. A no deal Brexit, it is claimed, could affect visitor numbers from the EU, diminish donations and also affect the ability of the museum to stage travelling exhibitions.
As with so many Brexit scare stories, it has the whiff of hysteria. But if the V&A and other museums do ever feel the pinch they could, of course, resort to an action they should have taken years ago: start charging an entry fee. It is astonishing that our museums and galleries are prepared to forgo a source of income that virtually all other museums and galleries around the world take for granted. Who visits the Louvre and complains about the 17 euro entry fee? It is absolutely standard to charge that sort of money – the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam costs 17.50 euros and the Prado in Madrid 15 euros. There would be little complaining if the National Gallery asked for a similar fee – offering a whole day’s culture for the price of pizza.
Last year the top 10 free London tourist attractions between them had 27.8 million visitors. If only half of those were to visit after the imposition of a £15 entry fee it would raise over £200 million for the arts – half the budget of Arts Council England. Think how many regional museums, galleries and theatres that money could help to prop up – much of it coming not from the pockets of UK taxpayers but from well-off overseas visitors. If visitor numbers did fall a little it would be no bad thing – overcrowding has become a serious issue in London museums and galleries, as people use them as rain shelters and public loos.
True, there is the argument of not wanting to discourage the poor from visiting galleries and museums, but that could easily be dealt with – by sending a handful of vouchers for free entry to museums and galleries of their choice. But it has to be said, when I visit London museums and galleries I can’t say I notice too many of the poor – the clientele seems to be overwhelmingly white and middle class. Moreover, the vast majority of these free museums and galleries are in London – yet subsidised by taxpayers nationwide. If we want to help museums and galleries reach a wider demographic they perhaps ought to be offering people a free coach ride from the provinces.
So here’s my own memo to V&A director, former Labour MP Tristram Hunt: stop moaning about Brexit and put up some ticket barriers.