Art Fund sacks its volunteers

March 6 2019

Image of Art Fund sacks its volunteers

Picture: ArtFund

I've been meaning to mention the Art Fund's decision to get rid of all its volunteer committees. These are the 48 or so volunteer committees (480 members in all) who organise fundraising events across the UK, drive membership, and help maintain links between museums and their local communities. They've been going for many decades, and are brilliant. I'm often asked to do talks for Art Fund groups, and always agree (and never charge) because it's heartening to see how people engage with the art and institutions around them, all whilst helping to raise money to support new acquisitions. 

The Burlington has written an excellent editorial on the Art Fund's bizarre decision, and asks some pertinent questions:

Why was there no consultation with the committees in advance of this decision? Why was the announcement made before a fully worked-out alternative to their work had been decided upon? And, crucially, what are the motives for the decision? The only reason given in the article is that participatory opportunities are now better organised by means of ‘digital and other media’, but that does not explain why a system that is working well needs to be closed down. [Art Fund director Stephan] Deuchar also fails to acknowledge that the volunteer fundraising programmes function as much-appreciated educational activities in regions where, in many cases, few such opportunities exist. [...]

Finally, how much do the volunteers contribute financially? According to the Art Fund’s website they raise £100,000 annually, but its most recent annual report states that in 2017 the volunteer committees raised ‘£354,000 through a variety of special events across the country’.

The last point - about the amount the volunteers contribute annually - is an interesting one. The AF website now says they only raise '£100k after costs', but this is a recent change. A snapshot of the same page before the story broke gives a figure of £350k. In previous years, going back to 2012, the same page has said '£300k', so it appears the net revenue was growing. Which figure is true? Did the Fund quickly tweak their website to make the decision to axe the committees seem less daft? 

But the money is almost beside the point. I think the decision to tell the volunteers to go away is rude, mistaken, and needlessly damaging to the Art Fund's long-term interests. Most organisations would kill to have a profitable, nationwide volunteer body. It's the sort of decision which should have prompted trustees to ask the executive some serious questions. But like most boards of trustees these days, the Art Fund's is another list of the great and the good, who tend not to have time for detailed scrutiny.

Update - a reader lets rip:

The post about the art fund was excellent. I have to admit its an organization that I've found challenging for a long long time. I've thought about contributing but have always held back. Your article sort of confirms my view that it really has lost its way. My own difficulties are as follows

I'm a great believer that organizations should have a clear brief. In the old days as the NACF I knew where it stood it's primary aim was to support the acquisition of artworks by public collections. I'm not actually sure what it does now if you look at its website its actually incredibly difficult to find the information on the purchases/acquisitions it has supported. In the current environment of cut-backs I really cannot see an excuse for not focusing on this agenda.

It really seems to prefer to commissioning  work rather than saving existing work. It seems to really want to be the contemporary art society rather than the  National Art Collections Fund. Again in an age when it is increasingly difficult for museums to purchase existing work why is the Art Fund wasting resources as a commissioner.

What is the point of the museum of the year completion which seems to be its focus for a lot of time. No one outside the sector has a clue what it is and I'm sure no one visits the V&A or anywhere else because it has won this rather odd award that pitches institutions which have very little in common against one another. It does, however, take up a lot of staff time at the Fund , which again represents a wasted resource which could be allocated to buying stuff. I'm sure that the Fund would argue that it raises the profile of the organization with philanthropists both individual and corporate but I'm afraid I'm not convinced.  

A final point that you may disagree with me on is what I feel to be the utter waste of time that is their curatorial training programme. It seems to largely recruit individuals from well established departments of Art History.  These individuals already seem to largely have MA's in a relevant discipline so I would argue they are probably ready for the world of work even if that might perhaps mean gaining relevant experience in the commercial sector.

In short the Art Fund really has lost it sway, it's original purpose was clear but it has been lost in a cloud of projects which I can only assume are the individual priorities on members of staff or trustees. Given this total organizational drift I've never felt able to join the Art Fund. I would really like to support an organization that focusses on supporting museums and galleries to purchase works. Perhaps its time to consider founding something that might be called a National Art Collections Fund (NACF) which might have this focus.

The sad thing is, we can perhaps assume that members of the 480 committees might now agree.

Update II - I'm told some trustees are unhappy about the move. But I have yet to hear of any resignations. If I was a trustee, I'd particularly want to get to the bottom of this confusion over the revenue brought in by the volunteers. Was the figure changed on the website purely to suit the PR message? If so, someone should be sacked. Or is it true that the Art Fund is so well off, that it can be seen to enthusiastically forgo a revenue stream of between £100k-£350k a year? 

Update III - I've had a deeper look into the Art Fund's accounts. In the 2017/18 accounts (p.89), the Fund states that volunteer committees 'raised a value of £354k net of costs'. So this figure is quite at odds with the current Fund webpage which states that the committees 'contribute £100k a year to our charitable programme after costs'. In 2016/17 (p.74), the committees raised even more, £387k. The 2015/16 accounts (p.84) give more context to the committee's fundraising abilities, saying; 'the network of volunteer fundraising committees raised £809,000 which net of costs of £453,000 generates a contribution of £353,000.' The net figure in 2014 £356,000. So, it seems that income from the volunteers is a pretty stable £350k a year. The costs of running the operation seem to be quite high; I don't know how they're calculated, but I'd have thought there was room for efficiencies to be made in the operation, rather than closure. For 2017/18, the Fund's total income was £13.6m, so it's true to say that the committees only raise a small portion of their overall income, 2.5%. But £350k is still £350k, and then there are the uncountable benefits, such as how many memberships are sustained and created by such a volunteer network. Total grants paid in 2017 were £5.56m. 

Update IV: a reader writes:

I understood that there was quite an issue with the newish Data Protection rules and my county committee were unhappy that the ArtFund stopped them from communicating at all with their local members - instead taking it all to a central office. Perhaps the discontent with this contributed to a breach of trust between the main body and the regions which in turn contributed to the decision to disband those committees. 

I also entirely agree with the notion that the Fund has lost its way. The ArtQuarterly has become heavily weighted towards contemporary art, a trend which sends a message about its priorities. This may suit some members very well but but what message does it send to those numerous small museums in desperate need of assistance to buy local items of historic interest, who would naturally have looked to the Fund for that help?

Another reader has this suggestion:

Regarding the Art Fund's disingenuous justification for disbanding its local volunteer organization, the only answer is that they should subcontract its management to the WI, who have a century of experience in managing local groups profitably and in the national interest. 

Update V - I have asked the Art Fund press office for an explanation on the £100k vs £350k figure. So far, no response.

Update VI - Jane Crease writes:

I read with great interest your blog on the Art Fund's disbanding of its volunteer network.

I am the regional chair for Yorkshire for the Art Fund volunteers and so am at the sharp end of this controversy. As might be expected, the volunteers themselves are incandescent with rage at this development; a decision taken without consultation but with the fig leaf that we can all now go away and support our local museums and galleries (almost all of whom have Friends who already perform this function). The letter from the Director announcing the decision to the volunteer network contained not a word of thanks to the volunteers for their efforts over the years. Only a swift intervention by the Chair of the Fund, Chris Smith, who sent out a courteous and grateful letter to us, together with an invitation to a function at the House of Lords and life membership for current volunteers, saved the Fund's face.

However, we did not run all those events and raise all that money to have it spent on events at the HoL and life memberships (I shudder to think what all that will cost). We raised money for the core purpose of the Fund; the purchase of works of art for public collections.

It is not only the volunteers who are angry. What surprised (and touched) me was the dismay expressed by so many of the Art Fund members when they heard the news. Many have written to the Art Fund (all receiving the same, anodyne response) and some are likely to resign their memberships. It may well impact on legacy income; I have personal knowledge of an individual who had bequeathed 40,000 pounds in her will and is now considering re-writing it.

Two things: we simply cannot understand the reasons behind the decision nor can we see any sign of the alternative "vision for volunteering" which was suggested as a substitute. 

The Art Fund is a cause to which I have devoted over 25 years because I believe in its core purpose. In common with other volunteers we want to enrich both local and national collections so that anyone can come face to face with art which moves and excites them. I am saddened that the practical contribution that I and other volunteers have been able to make is now regarded as worthless.

Update VII - I see that the Fund's annual salary bill is £2.1m. If we go back to the Fund's core purpose, helping museums buy artworks, then that's an inefficient way to distribute £5.56m.

Update VIII - another Art Fund member writes:

When I joined the Art Fund some 15 years ago it was to save art, with discounts to exhibitions very much a secondary consideration.  Back then, the website was updated on an almost weekly basis with news of latest grants, the online database of all art-funded works was fully searchable and the letters page of the Quarterly magazine provided a voice  for the membership.

Now, the Art Fund positions itself as a membership body offering discounts through the National Art Pass - not dissimilar to Costco in the retail sector - and the promotion of the acquisition of artworks is very much a secondary consideration. The Art Fund website and their social media channels almost never highlight acquisitions.  There are none on today’s home page with seven out of the eight new items centred on curators.   I am aware of a significant Art-funded Old Master painting secured at auction last summer which has still not been publicly announced.  News of acquisitions is now relegated to the back of the Quarterly magazine.  The Annual Review, an in-depth review of acquisitions was abandoned long ago and there is no longer a letters page in the Quarterly.   It is nw no longer possible to search online for art-funded works by year of acquisition.  

I was recently asked to complete an online member survey.  All the questions were focused on the effectiveness of the National Art Pass.  There was no curiosity about my views on the core activity of funding artworks.

The disgraceful treatment of the volunteer network is very sad and highlights how this institution has lost its way.  Whilst the Art Fund is busy promoting all sorts of ‘other’ rather than its core activity, the flow of precious artworks leaving these shores is unabated.

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