Ian Dejardin, Director, Dulwich Picture Gallery and a Vice President of the Dulwich Society discusses the difficulties currently facing the Gallery
I started work as Curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1998; and took over as Director in 2005. Of course, 1998 was before the refurbishment and new build, so the Gallery was a very different place, with a distinct absence of the kind of facilities that are expected of professional galleries - shop, café, stores, education centre, lecture theatre and so on. I often hear from visitors how much the Gallery has changed, how ‘buzzy’ it has become, and that must clearly, at least partly, be attributed to acquiring those essential facilities. It no longer feels like those dread travelogue clichés, the ‘hidden gem’, or, shudder, the ‘sleeping beauty’. Visitor numbers have soared - from below 30,000 in 1993-4 to last year’s record 160,000 - and we bask in a level of press and media attention that some of my central London colleagues frankly envy. With the current Ravilious exhibition, and the first ever show of the ever-popular MC Escher to follow, that will surely continue.
Much else has changed too, notably in the number of, and demands made on, staff. Standards of professionalism have risen across the sector, so we must keep up. Organising exhibitions with international loans, as we do routinely these days, involves project management skills of a high order and often dizzying expense. A single fine art crate can cost thousands. Those costs are a challenge to an institution that has no regular government funding; consequently the development department has had to expand and professionalise too.
And of course, exhibitions are only one of the things we do. We have an award-winning education department, set up thirty years ago by the extraordinary Gillian Wolfe, CBE, who left the Gallery just last month. The whole landscape of museum education has changed beyond all recognition, to a considerable extent as a result of Gillian’s influence, and we must also look carefully at those changes and adapt to reflect them. Gillian herself is irreplaceable, and it would be singularly unwise to try. But we look forward to building on what she achieved here, and - importantly - learning from that achievement, particularly in the area of attracting new, non-traditional audiences to the Gallery. That lesson in public engagement will always be relevant.
There is also a world-class collection and building to look after. Sponsors can be remarkably generous; but they tend to be reluctant to support core costs - those pesky expenses that merely keep the building watertight, keep the toilets working, and pay our staff, for instance. We do have an endowment (something of a rarity in this sector), currently standing at around £20 million, and I thank heaven for it, but the annual income from the endowment covers only about a half of those core costs. Currently, we have to raise an eye-watering 65% of our required income annually - potentially over £2 million - through fund-raising, which in the current financial climate and in the absence of the kind of philanthropic culture that some other countries enjoy is not a healthy proportion - especially since all the country’s cultural institutions are fishing in the same, rather small, pool. Our challenge is particularly steep.
Dulwich Picture Gallery is a Charitable Trust. But its charitable aims can seem unclear. How should they be defined? How is what we do charitable? How can its charitable aims be measured? Sponsors ‘get’ education - and fortunately our education offer is second to none, and absolutely core to what we do, as a quasi-social service; but the Gallery as a coherent single entity is much more than that. Creativity is one of the fundamental drivers of human beings, and the art we display here, from our permanent collection or in our exhibitions, amounts to a wonderful expression of that fundamental creative drive. Engagement with it is not only enjoyable, and potentially inspiring, but also important for our collective wellbeing - too often, culture is seen as the frippery icing on the cake, rather than a cake in its own right. Our charitable aim therefore is simply to encourage engagement with art as actively and inspiringly, to the greatest number of people, as possible.
Every year there is a £700,000 hole in our budget representing our core costs that has to be filled before we even start raising funds for activities like exhibitions, education outreach projects and conservation. For some reason, sponsors, trusts, foundations and corporates are resistant to supporting ‘overheads’ (presumably because they believe that some part of government covers this, which in our case they don’t and in everyone else’s they’re trying not to) - to the extent that if you do include an essential staff cost in an application, you will often be asked to remove it - as if you can do the project without the staff. Charities are expected to deliver maximum benefit with minimum expense - and yet an art gallery will only be effective if it invests seriously in its staff, its visitor services, and its marketing, all currently unsponsorable. This is an image problem, admittedly, across the whole charitable sector - as a society, we like our charities to look poor and we certainly don’t like them to look businesslike. But looking poor won’t attract a big corporate company to associate its name with you: you must look successful. Then others assume you don’t need help - a classic vicious circle.
So, is the situation worse than 10 years ago? In some ways, yes. That fundraising percentage target was certainly lower in 2005; and a return to interest rates prior to the 2008 crash would be nice, there’s no denying, but that’s not going to happen any time soon, or so I’m advised. Costs inevitably sometimes outstrip income; exhibitions can sometimes perform less well than projected (although sometimes better, of course, as well). Economies of scale - in exhibitions as in building projects - can be false economies. It may be easier to raise funding for, for instance, a hugely expensive show devoted to an unknown Canadian artist than for a much cheaper exhibition about a great British contemporary icon - it all depends on contacts and the particular giving culture one is tapping into.
The Gallery currently holds three major exhibitions a year, plus sundry displays and one-off interventions. This may seem a high-risk strategy, given the expense involved, but if we were, for instance, to cut one show from the annual programme, the impact on visitor numbers, and consequently on all of the income generation dependent on visitor numbers, would be dramatic; as would the impact on the Gallery’s profile and reputation. I think we can assume that exhibitions are essential to our economic health and effectiveness as a charitable trust.
So what are the most difficult challenges for the Gallery? Well, one is that hoary old chestnut that we are ‘difficult to get to’, although that always seems to assume that you are coming from central or north London (it’s not so hard if you’re coming from Orpington, say). But I think people have become attuned to the fact that there is a high likelihood that there will be a really interesting exhibition on at any given moment - and of course, Dulwich Village is quite astonishingly pretty as a place to visit. Having made it once, people realise it’s not that difficult to get here. On the other side of that particular coin is an anomaly that is perfectly infuriating: politically speaking, pressure has been applied to bodies like Arts Council England to be less London-centric in their grant-giving. Dulwich Picture Gallery seems to be either ‘too London’ or ‘not London enough’.
More obstructive is the perception that the Gallery is wealthy. The Gallery currently radiates success; and the endless hard work and worry that goes into raising the several millions we require every year goes on out of sight. From time to time, we ask ourselves whether we would be better off as a quasi-national, with regular government funding; but I think that, for now at least, the independence and flexibility that charitable status gives us remains an advantage - and heaven knows there are fewer boxes to tick and forms to fill in.
And my role? I think, like most museum directors, I am having to become more focused on fundraising, but I don’t mind that. The British do tend to find it hard to ask for money. But I made an important discovery quite early on: if you know, as I do, that what you are asking people to support really deserves it, then that ask isn’t so daunting - Dulwich Picture Gallery is, to steal an advertising slogan from a very different product, worth it. One wish? I wish more people would consider leaving the Gallery a legacy, of whatever size - after all, from our foundation onwards, we have been supported by bequests, and there are few better ways of ensuring that Dulwich Picture Gallery will still be here, still performing a vital service, and still at the heart of this community, in another 200 years.
Ian A C Dejardin