Design Museum reports a £1.2 million “operating deficit”

The museum has launched a new strategy in response, including an exhibition programme with broader appeal, in the hopes of “developing new audiences for design”.

The Design Museum in Kensington, photo courtesy of Gareth Gardner

The Design Museum reported an “operating deficit” of £1.2 million for the financial year ending March 2019.

Details of the museum’s losses — and its future strategic plans — were published in a report published on 31 March 2019.

This has been attributed to a fall in paying visitors and the cost of its recent move to Kensington. The museum likens the resulting “operating” deficit to that of a start-up.

The Design Museum moved from its original site in Shad Thames to its Kensington location — previously the Commonwealth Institute — in 2016. This year, it celebrated its 30th birthday.

The museum says that this deficit is “not sustainable in the medium term” and has launched a “strategic review of philanthropy” as well as an updated business plan. The business plan aims to achieve “operational profitability” over the next four years.

Part of the strategy is to display exhibitions which “address the broadest range of design topics, from architecture to fashion, graphic, digital to automotive”.

Business strategy

Paying visitors to the museum have fallen from 228,451 in the period November 2016 — November 2017 to 183,392 from 2019 — 2018, according to the report. The museum attributed this fall to a more “specialist-focused” programme, as well as the museum no longer being new.

A spokesperson for the museum tells Design Week that in the first six months of the 2019 — 2020 period however, the number of paying visitors has increased to 206,622, which is 20,000 more than the entirety of the previous year.

Part of this is down to the museum’s most successful exhibition to date, the Stanley Kubrick retrospective, which attracted 169,000 visitors. The recently opened Moving to Mars exhibition opened to a sold-out weekend.

“All of this is an exciting endorsement of the museum’s potential to develop new audiences for design,”the spokesperson says.

He adds: “The museum’s vision is a world where everyone values design. Developing new audiences for design has always been a key focus for the museum.”

Tim Marlow, photo courtesy of Cat Garcia

Conran’s £3m loan

On 31 March 2019, the museum withdrew in full a loan from the Conran Foundation of £3m. The Conran Foundation is a charity set up by Terence Conran, who is also a founder of the Design Museum. This loan facility will be in place until 30 June 2023 and the first repayment of the loan is due 30 June 2021.

The spokesperson confirmed that the museum has always been supported by the foundation throughout its history. He says: “As a museum without significant government funding we are grateful for their ongoing commitment, including a £3 million loan facility.”

The museum is also lacking a full payment of a £1m donation. So far only a quarter of this commitment has been paid, though the museum claims that it has “no concerns over the donor’s willingness or ability to pay”, according to the report.

The spokesperson tells Design Week that the loan “was always planned to be delivered along a staggered timeline”.

Last year, it hosted a private event by defence and arms company Leonardo, which resulted in criticism and a boycott of its concurrent Hope to Nope exhibition.

This month, the museum appointed a new chief executive director, the Royal Academy’s Tim Marlow, after its previous co-directors, Deyan Sudjic and Alice Black, stepped down after more than a decade.

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  • Carl St. James October 24, 2019 at 4:44 pm

    I adore the Design Museum but when they moved they should have come further north to open access up to more of the UK. Sheffield, Leeds or Manchester are thriving cultural hubs within much easier reach than the heart of the capital.

  • Neil Littman October 25, 2019 at 6:28 pm

    Thought there might be a few more comments by now? I visited the Design Museum when it was in Shad Thames several times. Sometime for a special exhibition but often just to see the permanent collection. I liked the layout, the shop and cafeteria and the location by the river. I think it inevitable that visitor numbers to the new location would fall after the initial excitement and it is a unique building and possibly easier to get to now on public transport. However I sometimes think the building overwhelms the content and it cannot rely solely on ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions to generate revenue. Having said that, the Stanley Kubrick exhibition was amazing. More film related events would be welcome. I thought the restaurant upstairs was too expensive. But I think there is something about the atmosphere of the new building that doesn’t encourage repeat visits. It would be interesting to know how the visitor numbers compare with the previous location and how much more the new place costs to run. Also a missed opportunity for the organisation to produce a visually attractive financial report or annual review that could have been used to generate sponsorship or interest. Was very disappointed when I downloaded the annual report and found it was a statutory document. Finally I think it would be good if our government of whatever persuasion were to get more involved in funding as places like the Design Museum can also serve to encourage people to enter the creative industries and contribute to the national economy.

  • Neil Littman October 25, 2019 at 6:32 pm

    Actually I stand corrected. The Design Museum has published a couple of annual reviews but kept the main financial information out of the publications.

  • Luke Price October 28, 2019 at 9:26 am

    Paid accredited courses and short workshops ran by industry-leading experts for professionals (not Grad Students) could easily bring in necessary revenue required and help give back to the design community.

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