07 Oct

Cardiff, cash and creativity: previewing the Museums Association Conference

Maurice Davies

The Museums Association conference is here again. Hundreds of museum people are spending 48 hrs in Cardiff to learn, share, network and gossip.  Last time the conference was in Cardiff, over 15 years ago, it coincided with the referendum that led to the Welsh Government.

Then, I was one of the people responsible for organising conference; this year, for the first time, I’m attending out of my own free will, rather than as a member of MA staff. So what am I looking forward to?

Well, mostly the networking and gossip –  catching up with old colleagues, meeting new people and    hearing juicy gobbets of mild scandal. Oh, and now I’m a consultant, I’ll also be gently touting my services. (For conference, we’re launching a few fixed- price services for a limited period  http://www.museumconsultancy.co.uk/os/page14/ourservices.html )

It’s always interesting to feel the conference mood. For the past couple of years, people have been unexpectedly positive, in spite of financial difficulties.  Maybe austerity really does free museums up to be more creative, as Helen Wilkinson suggested in our previous blog. So this year, with ever increasing austerity, will people be ever more positive?

Even so, I think there will be an awkwardness in discussions about funding. There’s still the unresolved issue of the huge inequity of cultural funding between London and elsewhere. So far, that’s mainly been a discussion about funding in the English regions.

With the conference based in Wales and the recent no vote in Scotland, I predict some delegates will want to discuss perceived inequities between the countries of the UK.

This often translates as complaints that England does better than elsewhere, but government funding per head is in fact significantly higher outside England. It might currently be easier to raise philanthropic and corporate funds in London, as it’s become so attractive to the world’s billionaires.

However, there are still many wealthy Scots and museums there benefit from a long tradition of charitable giving north of the border – look for example at the superb museums and collections in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Wales may not have such a strong philanthropic tradition, but the national art collection is enviably good for a nation of just over three million people, thanks in part to the generous bequest of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies.

I strongly believe in more cultural funding for non-capital cities, towns and villages in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales – and England, but I hope conference isn’t dominated by anti-English sentiment from disappointed separatists.

Of the more formal bits of conference, I’m looking forward to the keynote talk by  Antônio Vieira, who is director of the Museu da Maré, a museum in a Rio favela. Last year, a bunch of UK museum directors were taken to Rio by the British Council and on their return couldn’t stop raving about the museum, so I’m intrigued to see the man in charge.

Perhaps he’ll demonstrate that the keys to an inspiring museum are things like imagination and genuine community engagement, which are often more important than oodles of cash.