Cuts to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, by Jean Calder

Visitors to Brighton’s Museum and Art Gallery have dropped by over a half since introduction of a £5 entry fee for non-residents. Just 33,000 visitors went to the Museum and Art Gallery between 5th May and 5th August. This compares to 71,000 in 2014 and 87,000 in 2013.

It was no surprise to me to read of this reduction. In May, I wrote in the Argus, of my horror at the decision to introduce fees, given that, in London and in almost all other parts of the country, such basic services are free. I also highlighted how difficult the council had made it for residents to gain ‘free’ entry, by requiring them, at each visit, to queue, provide proof of residence and be checked against a computer list. 

At the time, I thought the queues for residents were a glitch in the system and that very soon the Council would allow residents to move freely in and out – for example, by showing a library card. However, no changes were made. In subsequent weeks, I queued a few times, then gave up. In the 40 years I’ve lived in Brighton, I’ve probably visited the museum on average about four or five times a month. Now I don’t go at all.

Back in May, I had no idea the Council planned to introduce charges. Still less did I know that, before making this decision, the Council officials predicted that a 50 – 75% reduction in visitors would result. I find it extraordinary that Council officials and elected members – whose job is to protect our heritage – proceeded with this policy in the full knowledge that many thousands fewer people would benefit from facilities previous generations have taken for granted. I recall no publicity about this and no debate.

Councillors recently warned council officials against using falling attendances to justify reducing opening hours. This immediately made me fear that this was exactly what was planned – particularly as I was subsequently contacted by an anonymous informant who told me that council plans were well advanced to put the museum service and art gallery out to tender and to close the much-loved Hove Library. An Argus investigation has now confirmed this – almost certainly well before the Council intended the information to get out. 

My cynical soul tells me that it’s a classic tactic to deliberately run public services down, suggest they are ‘failing’, then use this as an excuse to cut them and even sell valuable assets, while putting potentially profitable services out to tender to private companies – often leaving insufficient time for the public to examine proposals and mount protests. 

I fully understand that the museums and art services need to make £200,000 savings this financial year. However, this is a tiny amount when set against the millions that the Council this year failed to collect in parking fees. Coin Co International (CCI), the company contracted to collect the fees, collapsed earlier this year owing the council £3.2 million. The loss was not insured and the Council is believed to be unlikely to recoup more than £25,000.

CCI was paid almost £300,000 a year to collect more than £11 million cash from Brighton and Hove’s parking meters and £8 million cash from Council offices and schools. The company was allowed to hold the funds for up to ten days, enabling it to earn interest in addition to its fees to the Council. The money should have been paid into a separate account by CCI, but was not. The debt was allowed to build up over several months and at one point reached £4.7 million. Little action seems to have been taken to protect the Council. This is despite the fact the council’s previous cash collections contractor, Estate Security Southern, also collapsed.

There are two things which strike me about these events. The first is that, even in a time of austerity and threatened cuts, officials seem not to be held accountable for catastrophic loss of public funds. The second is that serious reductions to key public services have been planned in secret, without any regard for public consultation. This is no way to run local democracy.

I call on councillors of all parties and committees to act to protect our heritage and key services and to consult fully and in public. Above all, I ask them to realise Council officials are the public’s servants not its masters – and to hold them to account when they lose our money and threaten our services.

New Charges at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, by Jean Calder

I avoid public loos. I especially dislike the loos in the Pavilion gardens. I don’t care how many ‘awards’ they’ve received (I wonder who gives out these things and what contractors have to do to get them). They’re dark, depressing and terribly cold. And as any woman or child will tell you, temperature matters when you have to disrobe in the lavatory.  So I try to avoid them. 

My habit, for many years, has been to use the toilets in the museum and art gallery, though I admit it’s often just been an excuse to visit the museum. I love walking unimpeded through the stone entrance into the building, up to the purring Pavilion cat that my daughter and I used to feed with coins, past Salvador Dali’s red sofa shaped like Mae West’s lips (my daughter was always convinced she’d one day be rich enough to buy it) across to the stoneware bison and the Lalique table with the heavy glass bust of Beethoven. Then it’s on to the Voysey dresser and chair and brass lamp, a stop at the yellow glazed Minton pilgrim flask then right at the plate display and I’m almost there. Whatever my previous mood, by this time I’m happy. I’m walking on air. 

I look at other people peering at the displays and it occurs to me we’re like a family pottering around a well-loved family home that we haven’t visited for a while – along with visitors who haven’t been there before. I must admit I feel pride and a bit proprietorial. It occurs to me that that these are all our things, given, bought and paid for by previous citizens or by us. Sometimes I go upstairs and have coffee and a scone and read the paper and survey my, or rather our, domain.

As a child in South Africa, I visited the Durban library and museum each Saturday. I was too short to see over the library desk – and too young to understand why the only people there were white – but even then I had the same feeling of belonging and civic pride. The Victorian paintings were awful, but I loved the stuffed animals and birds, the lion and hyena, even an elephant and a hippo – and the model of a dodo bird, with a real dodo egg beside it. 

When I first came to this country in 1972, I lived in London and was terribly lonely and had very little money. Every weekend I’d leave my bedsit and visit the national gallery and the museums. They were all free and I’d mix with the people and look for hours at the portraits, especially the Rembrandts and feel just a bit less lonely.

In 1975, I came to Sussex University as a student. One of the first things I did was to visit Brighton’s museum and art gallery and make the acquaintance of its pictures and artefacts. Then my parents settled here and they too came to love the displays.

All this being the case, imagine my distress when, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to visit the museum, but was turned away. I strode in confidently, only to be stopped at a desk by several officials who told me the facility was no longer free to tourists – and that if I wanted to visit I needed to show proof of residence. A library card was not sufficient.

On that occasion, I rummaged in my bag and I was lucky enough to find a letter from my bank. My address was checked and entered on a computer (not a swift process) and I was allowed in, wearing a purple badge. In some distress, I left the museum through the Corn Exchange entrance.

Two days later, in a dream, I walked in again, only to be stopped again. I said “I’m on your computer”, but that cut no ice. I still had to show my letter. I said “This is an awful hullabaloo to go to the loo. Can’t I just go in?” Could I heck. “When was this decided?” I asked “Was there any consultation?”. “Oh yes,” one replied, while another said at the same time “I think they did try to keep it quiet”. Too true, they did – just before an election.

Two days later I visited again, but this time, I remembered. I went in through the Corn Exchange entrance where (note well) there are no barriers. I looked at the displays and visited the loo at my leisure, noticing with sadness how many people wore badges indicating they had had to pay. I somehow found it hard to meet their gaze. 

As I left by the main entrance, officials insisted on yet again checking my bank letter against their computer, presumably to make sure it wasn’t a fake address. As I walked out into the sunshine, past the sad little queue of people wanting to go in, I did not feel proud of my city.