With the gorgeously revamped Scottish National Portrait Gallery just reopening its doors to the public, the end of 2011 sees Scotland with four flagship cultural projects successfully completed. The Scottish Government’s support for culture, given its spending on three of these four projects, should be celebrated, but government must not lose sight of how the arts can truly make a difference amongst all the new bricks and mortar.

Although open to the public from 1 December 2010, the launch of the four great cultural capital projects started officially on 21 January 2011 with Makar Liz Lochhead opening the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway. This was followed by the Riverside Museum in June, the National Museum of Scotland in July and rounded off with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery last week.

Scottish Government funding and support, together with fundraising and Heritage Lottery Fund grants, was crucial for three out of the four projects. The National Trust for Scotland received £8.6 million from Scottish Government towards the £21m Robert Burns Museum. The National Museum of Scotland and Scottish National Portrait Gallery, each holding National Collections, received £16m and £7.1m respectively from Scottish Government.

The Riverside was the exception for central government funding, given the collection is held by Culture and Sport Glasgow. The £74m funding for the glorious Zaha Hadid venue was raised from Glasgow City Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and a fundraising appeal.

Such commitment to culture in a time of austerity indicates the Scottish Government recognises the importance the arts can contribute to both Scotland’s economic and wider wellbeing. And while the economy is still likely to dip further, this has to be a commitment with cannot be cut, either in creating or revamping new venues and also in making sure people can access them after opening.

Arts and culture are central to Scotland’s success as a tourist destination. Unlike festivals and events, museums and galleries can cater for visitors all year round, driving international tourism to us. The return on investment for culture spending is huge: an independent report estimated the reopening of National Museums Scotland’s museum on Chambers Street would contribute £3 to the Scottish economy for every £1 invested by Scottish Government.

And while each of the four capital projects has an essential ‘Scottishness’ as its theme, exhibitions like the stories of wandering adventurers in the National Museum’s World Cultures galleries and the Pakistani tales and faces in ‘Migration Stories’ in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery will inspire learning and broaden horizons.

This week also marks a decade since free admission to English national museums was implemented by then Labour Culture Secretary Chris Smith. Over those ten years, even institutions which did not charge previously, like the Tate and the British Museum, have seen a significant rise in visitor numbers since 2001.

The National Museum of Scotland, the Riverside Museum and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery are free for anyone to enjoy, and they must remain that way.  Maurice Davies, Head of Policy at the Museums Association, warned Scottish museums and galleries in 2010 that reintroducing entry charges would be a false economy, because charging admission would slash visitor numbers, thus increasing the level of public expenditure per visitor.

The Scottish Government has already committed more funds to further major Scottish cultural capital projects – the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre, the V&A at Dundee, and revamps of Glasgow’s Theatre Royal and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Each of these future projects are vital, whether for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to have a proper home, or for Dundee to gain some much needed Guggenheim-esque revitalisation on the banks of the Tay. But the Scottish Government must continue to heed the warnings of Maurice Davies and not permit institutions under its auspices, especially those displaying National Collections, to introduce entry charges.

To my secular brain, museums and galleries are what cathedrals were to the medieval mind: glorious living monuments that celebrate the best of humankind in science, or art, or history, or culture. Scotland has some of the world’s greatest collections here, owned by its people. Our government should spend to make sure those collections are housed in the very best of spaces, and it can never forget that its people have every right to see these treasures for free.