No room at the inn 

Can the National Videogame Museum survive exclusion from public funding schemes during lockdown?

An opinion piece from the BGI’s CEO, Rick Gibson

[Update: 6th July: Despite no arts funders assisting the charity from emergency funds, members of the public and the games industry stepped in to save the Museum, raising over £200,000 in 3 months, which has allowed the museum to replace the lost income from ticket sales from March until July. While Covid-19 still makes the future challenging for our new charity, the BGI is immensely grateful for this support.]

We closed the National Videogame Museum a few days before Government locked down the country due to Coronavirus. This tragic pandemic ravaging communities across the country is also a serious threat to many organisations who underpin the cultural fabric of our country, especially the newest ones like ours that have struggled to persuade arts funders we’re worthy of support.

What we do
The National Videogame Museum welcomed 40,000 visitors to our unique playable galleries in Sheffield and other programmes last year. We educated over 1,000 children whose schools visited to learn about the STEAM skills used to make videogames. Over 4,000 people discovered career pathways into the UK’s fastest-growing creative industry using our online training. We encouraged everyone, whatever their background or skills level, to make games, working with Islamic Relief to help launch a ground-breaking new game about international development made by one of our inspirational advisory board members.

Our team has 15 years’ experience of research and publication on how to curate, preserve and interpret videogames culture so we created the UK’s first digital Subject Specialist Network about videogames preservation. This now supports over 20 museums and many collectors. Our 5,000 object Collection is now housed with the University of Nottingham and we’ve built on an international research profile by publishing 2 white papers with Japanese colleagues and working with 3 different universities. We’re 9 months down the pathway towards formal accreditation of the Museum.

Public funding has been largely inaccessible
What’s remarkable about this list of achievements is that we did it with less than 5% of our 2019 income coming from public sources. Not by choice – most of them ruled us ineligible for significant grants. Arts Council England (ACE) no longer funds museums like ours that are mid-accreditation and Heritage Fund won’t fund new charities without annual accounts. So we have built our new charity almost entirely on ticket, education and donation income,  as well as a couple of very welcome small grants for the Arts for non-Museum projects from ACE and a Hallmark Grant from the Association of Independent Museums.

Then Coronavirus happened and like everyone, we were knocked for six, closing down a week before Government locked down venues like ours, furloughing half our permanent staff and all our temporary crew a few weeks’ later.

Frozen out
We waited for Government and Arts funders to deliver much-trailed assistance to our sector and then watched in astonishment as a succession of schemes passed us by. ACE announced a generous scheme to assist the arts sector, including £50m for non-National Portfolio Organisations like us. In the small print, however, they noted that if you’re not an accredited Museum or even working towards accreditation, you cannot apply. We’ve asked but were told emphatically that there is no flexibility to the rules.

Heritage Fund’s emergency fund for the entire sector is in fact designed only for previous grantees. As a new charity, we were discouraged from applying. The emergency fund for charities announced by the Chancellor is designed, rightly, to help charities offering frontline services during the pandemic. The Business Interruption Loan scheme is helping only the most viable businesses, but it won’t help a new charity like ours still finding its feet. Our business interruption insurance explicitly rules out closure due to viruses. Only the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant will help and it won’t last long.

Ironically, we were doing exactly what the Arts Council and Government wanted us to do – minimising our reliance on public funding. So just as almost all our commercial income evaporated, that very quality is why we’re being explicitly ruled out of publicly-funded arts bodies’ emergency funding streams. Over 100 museums are in the accreditation pipeline, which has now been halted for 12 months. All are cut off by this arbitrary decision, the only significant exclusion in a scheme that welcomes any art collective, dance group and theatre, but excludes non-accredited museums. ACE appear unmoved by the fact that Scottish and Welsh museums can win emergency funding whether accredited or not.

So how bad is it?
Covid-19 is a Darwinian threat to our very existence. Our ticket, school, event, hire, education and shop income streams do not exist under lockdown whilst patronage and commercial sampling are seriously reduced. Covid-19 leaves a six figure hole in the finances of a brand new charity with almost no reserves. We were on a roll earlier this year with a record breaking half-term, school visits increasing, new exhibitions being created and new patrons supporting the charity. Now we are going to have to work hard just to keep the charity afloat.

What are we doing about it?
We saw this coming a little earlier than some and started an emergency appeal 3 weeks ago, which has raised around £40,000. It’s a fantastic start (Thank you Boneloaf, Ukie, Sumo, Yogscast, Kelly Sumner, Craig Fletcher, First Touch Games, Auroch Digital and many more) but we’ve some way to go to survive such a prolonged shutdown.

This week we launched the first in a series of online courses, in response to people asking us what we advise them to do with their kids during lockdown. We’re streaming free courses inside YouTube and, soon, Twitch to teach young people games art, design and writing skills. More will come, if we survive.

We are appealing again to games companies, but they are moving quite slowly. Some are being overwhelmed with requests for local support from charities in the frontline and are being incredibly generous. Some are helping out the indie community. All are adapting to working and decision-making from home.

Behind the scenes, we are bidding for a range of grants from foundations and trusts such as CAF to reach some of our most disadvantaged communities and help them use the creative and educational value of games to survive the lockdown.

And we are delighted that the Yogscast crew have been helping us keep the emergency appeal in the limelight all week and streamed a long session yesterday about our emergency appeal.

Will we survive?
To be honest, it’s touch and go. We really don’t know whether we will make it into the summer right now. We’ve specialised in falling between the cracks of most of the public funding schemes, and it’s clear that so far only the games industry and our visitors are responding.

Videogames are one of the most treasured, fastest-growing, social and creative art forms in all of contemporary culture, although you have to work hard to find that acknowledged in the better funded corners of the Arts world. Just as more people than ever turn to them for entertainment, social connection and creative expression, the home of videogames in the UK has so far been frozen out by the cultural funding establishment.

There’s never been a National Videogame Museum before. It’s been a back-breaking, pioneering effort to breathe life into this one over fifteen years. This is just one of thousands of important cultural causes under threat at the moment, but we think we deserve a chance of survival.

As we fight to outlast the pandemic, our tiny team has taken heart from what the public say our museum means to them. Perhaps Government and Arts funders will listen to them instead:

The NVM is everything good about video games, constantly evolving and changing like the medium it celebrates. Alasdair

Lovely atmosphere. I came with my 12 year old grandson and felt the museum was welcoming for all ages. Well done! Joan

Great place for the whole family. We could have stayed there all day. Incredibly friendly, helpful staff & very informative exhibits. Tom

It would be heartbreaking for you to permanently close. Caspar

We’ve loved visiting the NVM (or NVA as it was when we started coming) for years. Good luck with the campaign. Nick Parkhouse

Why has the UK government not supported this brilliant museum? John Donne

Really enjoyed my visit last year and hard to believe you’re the only proper permanent exhibition of such a huge cultural medium now. Good luck and hope to visit again soon. Anonymous

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