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20 August 2020

Tate staff left “alienated” and “disheartened” after gallery announces 313 redundancies

Following cuts as a result of the pandemic, Tate employees are striking this week for the first time in the company's history.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

On 11 August, the Tate Modern was lit up red. The London gallery was one of more than 300 venues across the UK illuminated as part of the #WeMakeEvents campaign, which aimed to warn the government of the one million jobs that are at risk in the arts and live events industries following destruction wreaked by the pandemic. Spelt out vertically down Tate Modern’s central chimney was the slogan, “Throw us a line.” 

That same day, Tate had announced it was making 313 of its staff redundant.

The light-up action was “hypocritical and performative”, a Tate retail assistant who wishes to remain anonymous told me over the phone the following week. “It was done to support one million culture jobs. We felt they should have supported 1,000,313 jobs.”

The extent of job losses at Tate has far exceeded the initial announcement that approximately 200 positions would be affected. The redundancies are focused on Tate Enterprises, the commercial arm of the company, which runs as a subsidiary and comprises retail, catering and publishing roles. These redundancies – making up almost half its 640-strong staff – affect only employees based at Tate’s two London buildings, Modern and Britain. Employees at Tate outposts in St Ives and Liverpool are so far unaffected. 

The Tate employee I spoke to over the phone has worked in shops at Tate Britain and Modern for three and a half years on a casual contract, a position which allows for flexibility alongside their work as a curator. They told me they feel confident that their position is safe, but are worried about what the planned restructure of Tate Enterprises means for the availability of work in the future. There will be fewer shift opportunities and more competition between remaining staff to secure the slots that are available.

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The retail assistant is one of many Tate employees protesting the redundancies by striking this week, after a ballot at the union Tate United – part of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) – resulted in a vote of 88 per cent for strike action. It is the first time Tate employees have held a strike in the history of the company. On Tuesday, strikers formed a picket line at Tate Britain and then crossed the Thames to join protestors who had gathered outside Tate Modern. At the latter, two out of three functioning shops were closed due to the strike action.

Tate United has three demands: that no one is made redundant while anyone at Tate is being paid more than £100,000 (despite taking a 10 per cent pay cut during the pandemic, director Maria Balshaw reportedly still earns over £100,000); that Tate uses 10 per cent of the confirmed £7m it will receive from the government’s £1.57bn culture bail-out to save as many jobs as possible; and, if it is not enough to save them all, that Tate joins PCS to lobby the government for further support.

“Our colleagues at PCS were lobbying hard and were instrumental in helping push through this government bail-out,” the Tate employee, who is also a Tate United union rep, told me. “But it’s not reaching the workers.”

The employee suggests that the institution’s reticence to join the union is because it is a “government arm’s length body” – a public institution which now also relies on private fundraising to generate its own income, a financial situation they describe as “cloudy”. 

As is the case at the Southbank Centre, a little upriver from Tate Modern, and numerous other arts venues which have seen the front of house staff cut in recent months, employees are worried that BAME, disabled and working-class employees will be disproportionately affected by these cuts, a worrying move at a time when there is public pressure for institutions to diversify their workforces.

In an 11 August email announcing the job losses to Tate staff, published online by art critics the White Pube, Balshaw addressed this issue: “It’s important to say that we do not yet know the outcome until selection processes are completed. However, it is likely that the proportion of BAME colleagues across Tate Enterprises Ltd will remain broadly the same at the end of the process…. Identifying and mitigating any impact on the diversity of our organisation has been an important part of the consultation process.”

But cutting entry-level jobs undoubtedly has an impact on the availability of opportunities to begin a career in the arts, said the retail assistant. “We are some of the lowest-paid staff in all of Tate and we’re also some of the most diverse teams in the institution. These are working-class jobs in the arts which are very precious.” In January this year, the strikingly low pay of museum professionals across the industry was brought under scrutiny when Tate advertised for a head of coffee with a salary of £40,000 – more than the average wage of a curator working in London. 

It may strike some as odd that the first job losses will affect the commercial arm of the business – which, it would seem, is most likely to turn a profit – while no gallery staff are affected. In its public statements, Tate has not explained the reasoning for this directly.

The New Statesman approached the Tate for an interview, but nobody was available. The group did however send over a statement from Tate Enterprises directors Hamish Anderson and Carmel Allen. “We have been supported by Tate Gallery with an allocation of £5m from their reserves,” it said. “However, this funding cannot meet the gap in income due to heavily reduced visitor numbers in the galleries. We have worked hard and exhaustively, to model as optimistically as we can for the future and to keep as many jobs as possible.”

When Balshaw appeared on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs on 9 August – which many observed was inconvenient timing – she defended the decision to cut what was then suggested would be just 200 jobs. She said the decision had been made to focus on staff in the business’s commercial arm because visitor numbers are expected to stay at around 50 per cent “for quite a long time”.

“I think that the institution sees Tate Enterprises as the profit-making company, and if it’s not making all of the profit that it can be making at any specific time, then it’s not performing its function, it’s not contributing, and thus they should make cuts there,” the retail assistant imagined as the logic behind the decision.

Tate United is frustrated that, for an arts organisation, Tate has been particularly uncreative in its response to the crisis, a grievance I have repeatedly heard when reporting on arts cuts at other institutions

“We don’t think management have shown us that they’re willing to come up with solutions, either to re-deploy us into new positions and departments, or to innovate and think of new ways to make profit. We think Tate Enterprises could invest a lot more into e-commerce and into mobilising our staff to bolster what we can deliver online. But they haven’t made any additions there. We think they should consider quite simple ways to make more money, like packaging exhibition catalogues with pre-booked exhibition tickets. We have a lot of ideas but management haven’t been willing to listen to them.”

In the email sent to Tate staff announcing the redundancies, Balshaw noted that any employees made redundant would receive preferential treatment if Tate were to hire within the next year. But the retail assistant told me that the process has already “alienated” some staff to the point that they would not consider working at Tate again. Some of their colleagues have already taken voluntary redundancy “because they are so disheartened with the way the institution has treated us”, they said.

Staff have also criticised the organisation’s request for retail team managers to fill out “work performance assessments”. The form, a copy of which was published by the White Pube on Twitter, asks managers to score retail assistants out of a total of 200 across various criteria in order to help senior management decide which staff to make redundant. It is a particularly awkward task, the retail assistant I spoke to said, because team managers themselves face being made redundant under the restructure. 

It is unclear exactly how this halving of commercial staff will affect a gallery visitor’s experience at Tate in the coming months – whether the number of shops and cafes will too be halved, or whether they will just operate very differently. 

The retail assistant however emphasises that commercial work at Tate isn’t secondary to the artistic roles at the organisation – despite how commercial jobs are being treated by senior management.

“We feel like the shops aren’t just a way for Tate to make profit,” they said. “They are part of the experience of coming to the museum, looking through books, maybe buying a print that you keep on the wall of your home, that you feel sustains your engagement with art beyond the time you’re in the museum. I feel like losing that and losing the experience and care of the retail staff will impact museum visitors’ experience.”

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