Harriet Bridgeman: Why the new non-dom tax spells bad news for UK museums

Monday, 17 March 2008 - "The National Museum Directors' Conference (NMDC) - which represents the leaders of the UK's national museums and galleries - told HM Treasury last month that many of their  largest donors are non-domiciles who have made their homes in the UK. This is no surprise since half of the richest people in Britain with investable assets of over £15 million are indeed non-domicilies - many of whom are passionate art collectors and our national collections are greatly enriched by objects which are either on short term exhibtion or on long term loan from foreign domiciles. At the next exhibition you visit, look at the bottom of the descriptive card below a particular work and when you see "private collection", the chances are that it will be on loan from a generous non-domicile. These loans are fundamental to the superb quality - and range - of exhibitions at Britain's museums and galleries.

"The new tax on non-doms means that UK museums wil lose a significant source of actual and potential income and some non-doms may choose to keep their collections in a more favourable tax regime. So museums lose out on two levels: financially and culturally.

"This will have an enormous impact on the quality of public exhibitions. The income that museums will potentially lose from non-doms will have to be found somewhere. It's safe to say that the Government won't bridge the gap. For example, in the case of the Tate, the most popular gallery, with more than 6 million visitors a year, less than 40 per cent of funding comes from government grants. That leaves a massive funding short-fall, much of which has been provided by non-doms.

"Every year more than 30 million people visit Britain's museums and art galleries, almost all for free. Surely this will have to change and entrance fees may deter some members of the public. And, to attract more visitors, museums will have to be led entirely by their commercial viability and this means putting on 'crowd pleasing' shows: the kinds of blockbuster exhibitions currently on at the British Museum, the Royal Academy and Tate Modern. Yes, there is a place for these exciting shows, but what about showcasing lesser known artists?

"A National Gallery has a duty to support more academic exhibitions, but until the Government can fund and support these exhibitions more effectively, there will be little chance that museums will be able to continue to curate them.

"I am extremely enthusiastic about the The National Gallery's new programme. Its current exhibition on the 18th Century painter Pompeo Batoni contrasts with the big blockbuster shows on at the British Museum, the Royal Academy and Tate Modern, but there is a lot to be said for the brave decision to bring an excellent artist - one who is not currently at the forefront of fashion - to the notice of the public. The same is certainly true of the forthcoming Italian Divisionists exhibition.

"It appears that the Government has failed to take into consideration the impact of the new tax on the arts. Let's hope they see sense soon - for the sake of the 30 million people who enjoy Britain's museums and galleries each year. We need to keep offering a broad range of shows to cater for the public's broad range of tastes."

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