Why has Sheffield been left out in the cold?

Kid Acne Exhibition in 2011
Kid Acne Exhibition in 2011

Guest blog by A Sheffield Resident

Yesterday Arts Council England announced that 16 museum services had won their bids for a share of £60m Renaissance money to be given to the nation’s museums. The picture for Yorkshire was mixed as Leeds Museums and Galleries and York Museums Trust celebrated success but Museums Sheffield and Hull Museums and Galleries were left without a penny.

For Museums Sheffield this was a significant body blow. With their previous Renaissance funding –  as administered by the now disbanded MLA – coming to an end with this new funding round, a failure to secure the bid means a reduction of 30% in their overall budget. According to chief executive Nick Dodd this will mean large-scale redundancies, greatly reduced learning activity and an end to the kind of high-quality exhibitions which have put Sheffield on the map in recent years, for example their collaboration with Tate, John Martin: Painting the Apocalypse, and the fashion-fabulous Vivienne Westwood exhibition.

So why didn’t Museums Sheffield make the grade? The quality of their exhibitions? It seems doubtful. High profile collaborations with the British Museum, Tate , the V&A and the Art Fund have brought world class exhibitions to Sheffield including the beautifully curated Restless Times, the breathtaking craft exhibition Out of the Ordinary and the stunning photography of Angus McBean and Robert Mapplethorpe at the Graves Gallery. Add to this the award-winning Weston Park Museum (which was thronged with families last Saturday for the opening of the latest China exhibition) and you’ve got a museum service which offers inspiring cultural adventures rather than municipal tat.

Simply too much competition in the region perhaps? This is the reasoning that Cluny Macpherson, head of Arts Council Yorkshire offered on BBC Look North in response to Sheffield’s snub. Without doubt Yorkshire is a large county and the funding pot is limited, but surely that’s precisely why the Arts Council should be directing funding to where it is really needed?  Sheffield does not have the advantage of the thriving tourist economies of Leeds and especially York, nor does it have an arts infrastructure as strong as these two places.

Most tellingly, Sheffield has not benefited from as much Arts Council investment as these other cities and this latest funding decision increases the disparity.  Taking the Arts Council’s published investment in each major city via their National Portfolio Organisations, the cultural spend per head comes out at a measly £4.62 for Sheffield compared to £20.32 for Leeds. ACE have stressed the importance of ‘balancing their portfolio’ and yet this picture is wildly uneven. ACE’s motto is ‘great art for everyone’ and supposedly one of their major objectives is bringing cultural riches to disadvantaged and hard to reach audiences – plenty of those in Sheffield, something of a different demographic in York.

This 30% cut in budget can only send Museums Sheffield on a downwards spiral, shrinking Sheffield’s arts scene and making it a meaner, drabber place to live. It’s a vote of no confidence if England’s fourth biggest city can’t support a decent museums service.  It has implications for Sheffield’s broader cultural scene too.  You might argue that the more mainstream programming of Museums Sheffield isn’t the be all and end all in a city full of smaller specialist galleries, studio spaces and artists and designers. A recent article in the Guardian shows that Sheffield’s independent scene is alive and well  but it’s a question of biodiversity. If Sheffield’s cultural offer is slowly dismantled fewer people will want to visit, study, live and create in this city while better-resourced places like York, Manchester and Leeds, where central and local government has invested in the arts, will shine all the brighter.

Museums Sheffield have suggested ways you can help them make the case for culture in Sheffield here.

If you have an understanding of why this decision has been made, or could help gain some perspective on the matter we’d love to hear from you.


  1. For Sheffield to become a “drabber” place, it would already have to be drab. Sheffield is not drab.
    Maybe, it is because Sheffield doesn’t have the tourists coming in in the numbers Leeds and York does. Yet surely this creates a viscous circle which will become difficult to recover from?
    Sheffield is playing a huge part this year in Olympic preparation with its fantastic sporting venues, how about a bit of “culture” for these visitors? Or should we send them on a train to York and Leeds for this?
    Sheffield has a wonderful heritage and this has been largely supported by Museums Sheffield. A bit of support for them would have been appreciated.
    The independent arts scene in Sheffield is alive and kicking, this was well pointed out in this article, but for a lot of people the bigger exhibitions are more easily accessible.
    Come on everyone get behind Sheffield and the museums in a bid to get the voice heard!

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with this article. I hope the Arts Council has a reasoned, logical and coherent reason for turning down Museum Sheffield’s bid because from an outsiders perspective many of their decisions seem to be made on a ‘people we like best’ basis. As the writer points out this does not demonstrate a balanced portfolio but an uneven allocation of funding.
    I no longer live in Sheffield but it is my home city and I worked for Museums Sheffield in its early days as Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust. The creation of the Trust transformed the cultural landscape of the city and reinvigorated the city’s museums and galleries.

    We should all be asking the Arts Council to question this decision.

  3. This is the filtering through of decisions to cut spending which result in jobs and opportunities for education and creativity being lost. Sheffield Museums are excellent and have been getting better year by year.

    I cannot see how there can be a fair way of slashing spending on museums. The Arts Council seems argue that one achieves geographical fairness by giving chunks of money to museums in Leeds and York but none to Hull and Sheffield because they are in the same county. This is depressing, predictable claptrap. Museums are not primarily a tourist attraction – they are for the people of a area to give access to history, creativity and culture. As a schoolboy in Sheffield in the 1960s I spent hours in the Graves Art Gallery after school and on Saturdays. If I had found it closed would a notice at the foot of the stairs redirecting me to Leeds or York have helped?

    Arts administrators have a heavy burden trying to justify these decisions. They make their living by designing systems of rationing that, to avoid being criticised, have to pretend to be fair. The temptation to blame Cluny McPherson and his chums in Leeds must be resisted. No doubt Nick Clegg will come out fighting…

  4. This article uses the term ‘biodiversity’ in the context of the arts. I’d just like to make it clear that it is also the real biodiversity – the natural science collections and coverage – which will also suffer from this sad funding situation.

    Across the region, and indeed the country, museums have shed their natural science experts even more rapidly and willingly than they have shed their arts curators. Yet time and time again it is natural history that comes up in visitor surveys as being amongst the most popular of subjects with the public. So lets not forget that it will be the sciences AND the arts which will suffer. And at Sheffield I know there are genuine experts who have dedicated their lives to understanding and sharing their enthusiasm of the natural world – and hundreds of thousands of delicate specimens of real biodiversity which will be at risk.

    Nick Moyes
    formerly Keeper of Natural History at Derby Museum
    (made redundant through funding cuts last year, leaving no naturalists in post and the museum now trying to plug the gap by asking for help from volunteers).

  5. THIS IS VERY SIMPLE you don’t need to dig deep here. ACE Yorkshire Region Board is dominated by Leeds and York Councillors and academics. There are NO members of the board from Sheffield or South Yorkshire
    This is a smash and grab raid on funds rightfully belonging to Sheffield and we should be starting a petition demanding the resignation of all 12 members of the Yorkshire Regional Board.

    1. Cluny MacPherson (ACE regional director)followed the £5m to Leeds Museums to a £90k job, with no declaration of the grant, selected by a panel of contractors and ACE grant recipients (none of whom declared an interest). & worse besides. These crooks make me sick.

  6. I perhaps wouldn’t go quite as far as Dave, but I think there are problems of transparency and accountability which John Bain’s good-natured benefit of the doubt can’t quite gloss over.

    For years Sheffield has done poorly in Arts Council funding rounds, leading to the current situation where it has substantially the lowest level of funding per person of any major English city.

    Conversely, Sheffield seems to have been treated fairly reasonably by the previous museums funding settlement. Then the Arts Council takes on responsibility for museums and what happens? Sheffield misses out again. ACE can’t be surprised if people view its Renaissance major museum decisions in the light of its overall funding mix and its entrenched historical patterns. No wonder people are angry. This decision deepens the divide.

    Then there’s the issue of the Regional Council. It’s both shocking and surprising that Sheffield and South Yorkshire are unrepresented. Surely ACE can see this gives people in Sheffield and South Yorkshire little confidence in the decisions it makes.

    Though it’s part of Yorkshire, Sheffield is in many respects peripheral to it. Its sphere of influence extends from South Yorkshire down into north Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. If ACE had truly been thinking regionally and strategically, concerned as Cluny said for “audiences across the country”, it would have acknowledged this in its Renaissance settlement. No East Midlands museums received Renaissance funding either, apparently because they didn’t have Designated collections. Sheffield could have in part compensated for that.

    But from Dewsbury it doubtless all looks very different…

  7. Disgusting news this is. Everyone knows Sheffield is on the up with the art scene, the area has the largest artist community in England outside of London. What is this all about SERIOUSLY???

  8. Shame that we are losing funding for museums and galleries but there are those in Sheffield who have had to suffer humiliation in the name of art. Check out ‘Rotting Heads in Parson Cross’ video on u-tube. This video wrongly gives the impression that people here are uneducated, thieving, drinking, drug-taking idiots. That our children are taught how to cheat. It is a disgraceful piece of work that does nothing to boost confidence in either the people of Parson Cross or the art community.

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