The scheme carefully manages to balance public access and participation with the safeguarding of public collections while working towards a position of financial sustainability
Leeds Art Gallery’s Picture Library offers Yorkshire residents the opportunity to borrow original works of art to enjoy at home. The scheme was established in the 1960s, and is almost a unique service within the United Kingdom.
In recent years, after more than half a century of continued use, the service had become ragged; the works of art were in desperate need of conservation and the membership had significantly dwindled, to the extent that the need for significant change was clear. It was ripe for modernisation.
In autumn 2009 we took the difficult decision to suspend the Picture Library whilst we began fundraising to enable the scheme’s renewal.
We received support for our project from the Museums, Libraries and Archive Council and later from Arts Council England
The first steps were to begin the vital process of conserving the works of art and to remount and reframe the entire collection. From there, we went on to transform almost every facet of the Picture Library, from its brand to its administration.
The initial investment enabled us to increase our audiences whilst creating a new and sustainable source of income. From the moment we relaunched the audience feedback and feeling around the scheme was overwhelmingly positive. There has been a great level of interest from both the public and the press including live BBC coverage of one of our exchange events in 2015.
However we still have work to do, the success of increased memberships has led to new demands.
We have a pressing need to review how we digitally manage the membership scheme itself especially now that our excel system is at capacity. The way we handle direct debits needs a further overhaul and should be supported by a CRM system rather than the text messaging service we currently use. We also want to enhance members’ loyalty with rewards.
Today, the Picture Library seems to be one of the rarest of things. In an economic context where resilience is a challenge no one can ignore, the scheme carefully manages to balance public access and participation with the safeguarding of public collections while working towards a position of financial sustainability – even profit. It is also great for public engagement and every selection event has become an exciting and magical date in the calendar for our members.
The scheme collects approximately £25k pa. from around 300 individual members each paying £72 for 12 months. We host on average four exchange events each year supported by staff and volunteers.
We had to suspend the membership of the scheme during Lockdown but have been delighted to see so many members stick with us and continue to support us. We have of course had to rethink our events to make them Covid secure and have for the first time ticketed the selection event in order to manage numbers safely inside the Art Gallery.
The real joy of the scheme (outside of the incomes of course) is the members’ participation at our events. Many families bring along the whole household, so all generations are engaged from the youngest right up to the eldest. It fits with what we do as a service, allowing members to feel special and engage with art from our collections, increasing awareness of the work we do and builds loyalty across local residents.
Much has been written about the change that Covid has made, and will make on the commercial enterprise of our museums, galleries and historic venues, all I can say is that without having a broad range of activities such as our Picture Library we would be in a much worse position.