Economic decisions, are impacting the curation of our arts & Treasures

By Francesca Vine: Arts Columnist

At the end of July, The National Trust announced that it was going to make about 13% of its staff redundant, cutting around 1200 jobs. The cost-saving measure would save the charity £60 million, which in addition to other cutbacks on office costs, print spending and marketing, meant a total saving of £100 million, against the approximately £200 million lost since the start of the pandemic.

Then, at the end of August, a document dating back to May that outlined a full re-structure was leaked by The Times, leading to a public outcry, with the art historian Dr Bendor Grovenor launching a blistering attack in The Art Newspaper. The leaked document titled ‘Towards a Ten Year Vision for Places and Experiences’ proposed scrapping a one-fits-all approach and instead classifying country houses (referred to as ‘mansions’) into ‘treasure houses’, ‘classics’, ‘high quality public realm’ and ‘commercial operations’.

The latter, applying to smaller buildings deemed less interesting, will now have an objective of being a ‘public space in service of local audiences’, in other words, becoming commercial events venues. To this end, the Trust plans to facilitate this by “moving objects or taking them off display where needed to make spaces more flexible and accessible”.

In chilling language, the document lambasts the “outdated mansion experience”, whose existing programming only serves “niche audiences”, as it proposes to “re-purpose” many of its current properties. The Director General, Hilary McGrady has been forced to deny that the trust would be “dumbed down” by the proposals and said that it is simply finding “creative ways” to save money.

However, outlined strategies for the charity to “dial down” its function as a “major cultural institution”, including plans to hold fewer exhibitions and put collections into storage, focusing instead on its mission to become a “gateway to the outdoors”, have caused great concern among members, staff and the public.

The central curation and experience team is being reduced by a third for a saving of only £0.96 million, before redundancy costs. Despite owning 13,683 paintings, the Trust will have no specialist paintings curators, nor according to Grovesnor, books, furniture, decorative arts or sculpture curators. Similar cutbacks are apparently planned at regional and house levels.

Included in the planned redundancies will be the charity’s own education officers, a move which saw protesting volunteers accuse the charity of dismissing deprived and ethnic minority children, who would no longer have access to its houses or the ability to enjoy nature at the Trust’s properties. Additionally, planned cuts include scrapping all curriculum-based content and learning activities for schools.

The Trust has just released its updated redundancy figures, with the now 1300 job losses, 514 compulsory and 782 voluntary, joining the 162 who have already gone. Despite these figures being larger than previously announced, the charity has said that it cut the number of compulsory redundancies planned by half, after a consultation with members. The final plan was a result of 45 days of consultation, drawing on feedback from 14,500 staff and volunteers.

What shape The National Trust’s precarious future will take is still unclear, however, as the Shadow Culture Secretary, Jo Stevens, has said “once these jobs are lost it will be hard to get them back”.

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