Is cultural commissioning the future?

Alistair Brown, 09.03.2015
Looking for creative ways to be resilient
I spent last week criss-crossing the country to hear about two distant ends of the museums sector – but ones that might learn quite a bit from each other.

First, I spent a couple of days in beautiful Durham. Spring may have been in the air, but the sunshine was one of the few things to smile about at the Local Government Association conference on culture, tourism and sport, where I learned about the challenge of maintaining local authority services while also delivering near-impossible levels of cuts.

I spoke to councillors from Kent to Kendal who were championing their museums, often in close consultation with museum staff and the public.

It was reassuring to hear from many councillors that they saw their cultural offer as being a key part of their civic duty, but the numbers look bad, whichever way you cut it.

One of the most popular responses to the budgetary challenges is for local authorities to commission services from external providers. Commissioning is nothing new – it began under Tony Blair’s public service reforms – but the cuts are seeing commissioning extend faster and further throughout public services.

In this model, local authorities act as commissioning agents, either using their own funds or seeking out other public funding to deliver a key goal.

For example, we heard about a leisure service which was adapting its offer towards people with specific health problems, and commanding a substantial sum of money from the local wellbeing board to deliver results in terms of improved health and wellbeing.

Is this also where things are headed for museums?

It is certainly likely to become more common, and museums faced with a local authority seeking to commission services will need to assess whether they are able and willing to use this as a route to funding.

For museums that are focused on delivering social impact and the Museums Change Lives agenda, it could be an opportunity to work more closely with other organisations to create the broadest possible impact.

In other cases, adapting to the expectations that come with cultural commissioning will be a sharp learning curve.

This was on my mind when I visited Derby later in the week to meet the first graduates of the MA’s Transformers programme (we’ll be launching the second round soon).

We heard about projects to make museums more business savvy, more socially responsible and more embedded in local education – often all three at once.

Faced with a room full of talented museums professionals, each with their own radical and innovative project to change museums practice, I was reminded of everything that the museums sector has going for it.

Would cultural commissioning – with its local authority objectives and paperwork – have helped the Transformers to deliver their goals? Perhaps. But it is not the only way to make a museum more resilient. There’s plenty of scope for creative and risk-taking responses to the challenges that museums face.