Kevin Buckle: Good news for lovers of city’s galleries and museums

Footfall and takings are down at the City Art Centre. Picture: Greg Macvean
Footfall and takings are down at the City Art Centre. Picture: Greg Macvean
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I was pleased to see that Edinburgh council has been looking at restoring the opening hours of their museums and galleries after discovering that closing them on some days failed to result in the savings that had been calculated, or indeed any real savings at all.

I have regularly walked out of the back of the station to see folk standing outside the City Art Centre on a Monday or Tuesday wondering why it was shut. To do so even during the summer months and, in particular, the Festival was a strange decision. Having said that when it is open, it is often very quiet indeed so I could see the logic in picking the two quietest days to be shut.

The statistician in me, however, immediately thought the figures were a little odd. The City Art Centre footfall had dropped by 32 per cent and its takings by 35 per cent. To blame this on being closed for two quiet days simply didn’t make sense as a more realistic expectation would be to drop by 20 per cent at most. On top of that, some folk who missed out on the closed days would return and more importantly visitor numbers everywhere else had increased considerably so all things being equal a drop of ten per cent to 15 per cent would be expected.

READ MORE: Move to extend museum opening times as revenue left endangered

These figures were borne out by the Museum of Edinburgh being down 13 per cent and the People’s Story down 16 per cent. On the other hand, the Museum of Childhood’s footfall was also down badly at 28 per cent and income was down 25 per cent. I do know from my time in St Mary’s Street that people felt that footfall generally in the Canongate was down substantially and this would be as much a reason, I think, as the days closed.

Just to confuse matters further, the Writers’ Museum at the Lawnmarket had seen visitor numbers rise slightly despite the two days of closing. Herein lies the answer to what is behind all these figures. The Writers’ Museum had recently relocated, expanded its retail offer and created a more open and visitor-friendly environment, so its sales hadn’t suffered and footfall had improved despite those two days of closing.

Even more importantly, I think they had had a very popular attraction on for most of the time in question in the Rebus 30 exhibition. So make things more visitor-friendly, improve the retail side of things and offer people what they want to see and a great improvement can be achieved.

The Museum of Childhood, being by far the most popular attraction, had the most to lose from the closures and general drop in footfall and though not great it explains a lot and they are still more than twice as popular as any of the others mentioned.

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Which leaves those City Art Centre figures. Now I do have to declare an interest here in that I was asked to look into having a pop-up exhibition for the Scottish Pop Music Centre in the CAC on the ground floor for the very reasons that the Writers’ Museum was so successful. It was felt by some that a popular music exhibition would make the place both more visitor-friendly and indeed more popular. Unfortunately others felt such an exhibition unsuitable and nothing came of it.

As it turned out the Fruitmarket Gallery opposite very kindly offered me space and in June we had over 1500 visitors in three days. The CAC footfall figures have dropped to the lowest of the five buildings involved with 48,516 over the year which is an average of less than a thousand a week. Assuming they are much busier during the Festival and the International Science Festival in April some weeks must be very quiet indeed!

One of the comments about the CAC for years now has been that even when open it looks shut and coincidentally one of the explanations for the low figures has been that roadworks made it look shut when it wasn’t. This may be true but if so it only really exaggerated a problem that already existed.

The council had hoped to save just under £450,000 in total, mostly on wages, but having saved almost nothing at all in the first year because of the drop in income they now quite sensibly look like they will reverse the decision. A further consideration was the damage to reputation and the council has to be commended for admitting an experiment hasn’t worked before too much harm is done. As for the City Art Centre, I can only hope they take their cue from the Writers’ Museum and make the ground floor more inviting. Whether that will ever include a Scottish Pop Music exhibition has yet to be seen, though if it’s good enough for the National Museum of Scotland …