Stimulating private museums: Riga’s weapon to battle pandemic effects in cultural sector

Image: RossHelen (Canva)

As some parts of the cultural sector are slowly recovering from the pandemic, many local and private-owned museums are still struggling to bounce back. To help these organisations in the Latvian capital of Riga, the Department of Education, Culture and Sports of the City Council (RD IKSD) set up a competition for private museums and heritage sites to come up with ideas and projects, resulting in financial support from the municipality. Since small museums across the continent are struggling, could this competition inspire others?

Whilst state-supported museums and heritage sites have not had an easy time since the start of the pandemic, it appears that private museums suffered the most in 2021, the European Museum Academy reported. Because there were fewer visitors, private institutes struggled financially which shrank their organisation. For example, in Romania and Georgia, there were almost no job losses at state-subsidised museums, while private institutions lost a significant amount of staff. In France, a local art and crafts museum even had to close and auction its collection.

Cultural entrepreneurship

Back to Riga, where private institutes of all kinds were announced as winners. From military heritage (1991 Barricade Museum and the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia) to art and artefact collections (the Museum of Retro Cars and the Naive Art Museum of Latvia) and local heritage (the Ziedonis Museum, the Žanis Lipke Memorial, the Jewish Museum in Latvia and the Museum and Research Center of Latvians in the World). The funding competition aims to encourage cultural entrepreneurship, by creating projects or new institutes, The Mayor reported.

It is a way to encourage private museums to grow, improve and seek new technical and methodological solutions.

Iveta Ratinika

“Co-financing to support accredited private museums will improve these institutions and what they can do in the difficult post-pandemic environment. It will also encourage the development and availability of new educational programs in Riga”, chair of the RD IKSD Iveta Ratinika explained to the Latvian newspaper Diena. She continued: “At the same time, it is a way to encourage private museums to grow, improve and seek new technical and methodological solutions. It is gratifying that several high-quality applications have been submitted and various new, meaningful classes, exhibitions and events await us, especially students”.

Private collections

Using public money for private organisations or enterprises is not something uncommon since the pandemic. In some countries, private museums could even apply for emergency funding to keep the lights on. But while funds are running low, and more of Europe is returning to ‘normal’, visitor rates are not up to pre-pandemic figures yet. All the more reason why government funding could prove vital to helping private museums and sites through these difficult years.

The Žanis Lipke Memorial, remembering Mr. Lipke sheltering Jewish people from the Riga Ghetto during WWII, will also receive funding. Image: Ansis Starks (Wikimedia) CC BY-SA 4.0

Nonetheless, two of the ten competitors were deemed ‘ineligible’ by the selection board. There was no comment on the reasons why the projects did not receive funding. The question remains why these organisations did not make the cut, and how much power should be handed to the authorities to decide which private institutes receive funding, and which do not. Is a contest even the best form to help these kinds of institutes? Should local heritage be left to compete?

Regardless, it is important for authorities to support private-owned museums and heritage sites. Private museums, much like public ones, stimulate tourism and create a lively cultural sector within a city. Although these sites often don’t have an expert staff, they help to make private collections open to the public. They also focus on quirky, overlooked or marginal stories and artefacts of history, which gives specific communities and stories a voice. For the sake of these museums, it might be worthwhile for other European cities to take a look at Riga’s competition. Or think about structural support for private museums and heritage sites.

Sources: Diena (Latvian), The Mayor