Gatherings of Friends, invoked to support worthy local institutions, monuments and open spaces, have grown and multiplied in recent years. Dulwich has developed its own impressive array of them As with amenity societies, residents' associations and other voluntary organisations the only certainty is that, however many of them one has recognised there will always be yet another one that has been left out, often to the indignation of its supporters. It is clearly high time to make a proper taxonomic study of the nature, behaviour and common features of an important species. This is little more than a cautious introduction to an emotive theme.
One class of single issue group emerges when there is a cause to fight, with a clearly defined opposition. The Crystal Palace Campaign was a notably successful example: the Save Dulwich Hospital campaign was another. It is sometimes more difficult to maintain community support for what happens subsequently. When more than one body exercises a proprietary voice on behalf of the community this can make life difficult for the local council, hospital authority, or any other body which actually owns the property, especially if it may unguardedly have expressed an intention to dispose of an underperforming asset. One has some sympathy with hard-pressed local authorities trying to allocate scarce financial resources. At the same time there has been deep suspicion, often justified, of development with an eye only to financial gain. Friends' groups have arisen to assert the community's interest in preserving a local amenity where its survival is threatened, or where it has manifestly been neglected for some time, perhaps with a conscious eye on "planning blight".
We are still not free of the painful long-term consequences of a country virtually bankrupted by two world wars. Destruction of the Crystal Palace occurred independently of these, but cumulative neglect of our public parks and other Victorian features has continued for most of the last century. Buildings become obsolete. Some local institutions such as Dulwich Hospital have lost their original functions and have sought new ones. Victorian cemeteries have filled and public baths have emptied, horse troughs and drinking fountains provide less succour than petrol stations to needy travellers; cycle stadia no longer meet metric specifications; libraries founded through the charity of public-spirited Victorian figures like Carnegie and Passmore-Edwards now give more shelf prominence to CDs and DVDs than to books; the permanent collection of the South London Gallery is now cocooned in bubble-wrap and is in deep storage.
Identifying a new community need for superannuated assets is often a necessary first step in bringing about their rescue or rehabilitation, but it is not enough to see the process through. Local authorities have now become more responsive to the declared wishes of local communities. Friends' groups have certainly helped to articulate these. Local authorities may also welcome them because they hope to raise more money in this way from local communities, but this is probably only a long-term aspiration. Councils must sometimes regard Friends' Groups as being as much an irritant as a blessing, but the Heritage Lottery Fund has been a positive godsend in obtaining new funding to renovate local parks and galleries, and the existence of active Friends' groups has certainly been a key feature in securing this. The Dulwich Park Friends, for example, helped Southwark Council considerably in assembling the Lottery Fund application.
Local councils have not only been the custodians of less than welcome long-term assets. Dulwich Picture Gallery was for many years owned uncomfortably by Alleyn's College Estates. The contrast between what the Gallery now is and was in the 1960's could hardly be more acute. Then it showed every symptom of being little more than an expensive liability, instead of a priceless asset. The Estates Governors were reluctant to provide even heating or artificial light. The Gallery has been probably the most striking local example of where a vigorous Friends' organisation has contributed greatly to the success of the Gallery's now thriving and widening reputation. Last year the Friends' celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. They have been largely instrumental in providing much of the Gallery's civilising atmosphere and amenity, in close co-operation with a recent succession of active Directors.
The status of the Gallery was transformed when it parted from the other beneficiaries in 1995 into a separate Trust, when Alleyn's College Estates was reorganised as The Dulwich Estate. Independence such as this has invariably been the most effective way of focussing the management and finance of similar institutions. This has certainly served the Horniman Museum well, but also leaves these institutions with the responsibility of finding most of their financial capital (either with or without the support of the local authority).
Both of these institutions have benefited immeasurably from having active Friends' organisations. The Picture Gallery has achieved financial independence largely through the generosity of its patrons, and like other galleries in London it has established a slightly privileged hierarchy of access among its Friends. Unlike the Horniman Museum the Dulwich Gallery charges for general admission, so the Friends derive financial advantage from belonging, as well as from their admission to special exhibitions, for which the Horniman is able to charge. Both institutions have also benefited from large Lottery Fund grants and the Friends have helped to raise substantial additional finance.
The Picture Gallery's current total of around six thousand Friends is a continuing source of pride. Friends' activities, both in the Dulwich Picture Gallery and in the Horniman, continue to be organised through programmes separate from the exhibitions and special events arranged by the Galleries themselves, which can cause occasional confusion to visitors. There is a current debate in several galleries whether to bring Friends' organisations "in house" to avoid this, but it is generally regarded as important that Friends are a valuable measure of community support and should have their independent existence.
Friends' groups help to assert that local communities regard their public assets as being of social value which is greater than merely their financial development value. They seem to function best where they work in close collaboration with the authorities responsible for managing these assets, where individual institutions are under active and imaginative direction, and where the adequacy of their finances is assured and budgets are under their own control. This is a formula we hope can develop further.