Friday, 11 May 2012

Article - Live within our means (Museums Sheffield)

AS the new chief executive of Museums Sheffield, Kim Streets sees her role as helping the trust “recover our sense of purpose” in the face of swingeing cuts to its funding.

She insists the time has gone to leave behind recriminations about Sheffield’s treatment by Arts Council England. “You could get stuck in the doom and gloom,” she says, “but you have to look at it as a great opportunity and to move forward.”

Streets assumes the top job vacated by the departing Nick Dodds after 21 years working within the museums service, from the days when it was directly run by the city council before becoming an independent Trust in 1998. And this gives her cause for optimism.

“When I joined we had no money, a small team and the prospect of year-on-year cuts – we are in a similar position today but then, as now, we managed to do great things with the resources we had.

“It’s a very cyclical thing. We have been able to do great things, especially in the 2000s when we had our Renaissance funding, and I know we still have some of the great museums and galleries in the country so there is a lot of potential to unlock.

“My first job is to help people through a traumatic period and to stabilise things and then look at the longer-term vision.”

The Transition funding from the Arts Council, awarded to Museums Sheffield while they adjust to life without the level of budget they were used to, will expire in September. In that time a team of 105 people will be reduced to 65.

There will be the opportunity to compete for a share of an Arts Council pot called Strategic Support which could provide further cash but they are certainly not relying on that, especially as no-one knows yet what the criteria are for applications.

“We have to live within our means and show resilience,” says Streets.

What this means in practical terms is that many future exhibitions will make use of Museums Sheffield’s own resources. “We will have to bring out more of our collection and look at how we use them in different ways,” she says. “It’s a chance to look at what we have.”

Another efficiency will be for exhibitions to run slightly longer – such as Force of Nature, the Ruskin-inspired show at the Graves Gallery opening in December. Presumably some plans for next year have had to be scrapped. “Before we knew we had lost our major grant we were already being cautious in our programming so I don’t think we have had to pull out of anything we were talking about,” says Streets.

“As we approach next year we will have a clearer picture of what we can do in 2013. We already know that the Craft and Design Gallery will be marking the centenary of stainless steel. Then in the following year it will be 100 years since the start of the First World War so there is a powerful story to tell there.”

Both are subjects where there are rich resources within the city collection to tell the story. That is not to say that collaborations with other institutions will cease such as the V&A whose Magic Worlds exhibition is now on at Weston Park. “These will continue,” insists Streets. “The V&A has touring shows on different scales and we will have to chose ones that are more affordable – a case of cutting our cloth.”

The Great British Art Debate, which has brought such high-profile exhibitions as Watercolour in Britain and The Family in British Art, has run its course but it is hoped the partnership with the Tate, Tyne and War, and Norfolk will continue in some form.

Then there are opportunities closer to home. “We also have to think what we are going to do about community art and whether we can do it in a different way and how can we work in collaboration with other people in the city such as the Site Gallery, S1 and the universities.”

Streets, the mother of three children in their teens and long-time resident of Pitsmoor, admits that she could scarcely have imagined from her early days that she would be sitting behind an executive desk in Leader House with a view of Park Hill Flats.

“My role is less hands on now from the days of running wattle and daub sessions at Bishop’s House,” she reflects. “In stepping back from that it is still dealing with people.

“I was quite jammy in how my career took off. After I graduated (from Sheffield) I became involved in an oral history project at Globe Works. Through that I got voluntary work one day a week with the keeper of social history at Kelham Island where the social history collection was based then. That was David Bostwick who had such a passion for the job and I knew then that was what I really wanted to do.

“But it was difficult to get a job and I found one in the museum at Grantham to which I could commute from Sheffield. I was there for about a year and then a vacancy came up in Sheffield – my dream job as Curator of Social History – which I applied for and got.”

When the present opportunity came up did she see it as a dream job or did it take some heart searching before she put her hat in the ring? “It was a question of asking myself if I was up for the challenge. And the answer was yes.”


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