How the Tate staff strike exposes the contradictions ravaging the arts sector

It is time our major art institutions address the mucky business of money. 

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During my younger years in Dublin I managed to cultivate a churlish distrust of art and artists, despite never having spent much time around either. I seemed to have missed out on a silent but vital lesson, somewhere between the age of 14 – when art meant being good at drawing fruit and faces – and adulthood, when art meant all manner of unquantifiable, shifting things. I liked to go to art openings because attractive people did so too, and there would be a crucial ten minutes early on where you could rinse the free, albeit acrid, wine. But the art itself, whatever it happened to be, I turned sullenly away from, refusing to engage. I had the feeling that someone might be ­having me on with what they had ­produced. To express a thought, no matter how general or banal, would ­reveal instantly that I had failed where others had succeeded, and that I could not understand the objects on a sophisticated level.

Sometimes this suspicion of mine that it was all a droll laugh at the ignorant viewer’s expense did bear out; an exhibition I went to featured a red button accompanied by a sign that read “push me”, and when I moved to do so a pristine gallery assistant glided towards me to forbid it. But for the most part my instinctive eye-rolling at what I perceived to be the pseudo-intellectual excess of the art world was reactive and borne out of insecurity. Not only was I not a particularly visually-minded person, but I had dropped out of university and had no grasp of theoretical terms.

When I was 24, though, and living in London, my relationship to the art world changed because the man I was seeing was an artist and so was more or less everyone he knew. All of my roommates in the south London house I’d moved into were, too. My roommates weren’t the terrifyingly fashionable trust fund types I assumed most practising artists had to be by definition. They were like me insofar as they juggled an array of scrappy jobs, were tired all the time, and battling against the abrasive city we chose to live in. But, unlike me, they had a purpose, something they cherished. They tried hard, and they cared. I think ­seeing this made me look at art in a new, softer way.

I noticed that my new friends and acquaintances would refer to their “waged work” instead of simply work, to distinguish what they did to pay their bills from their other, creative work. Something about this excited me, the casual implication that making art (or in my case writing) could be valid even when it did not commercially reward you. For years I had worked in transient nothing jobs: retail, hospitality and admin temping, writing in my spare time. Because of how I earned money, I never ­allowed ­myself to say I was a writer, but that began to change in London.

But I noticed, too, how difficult the topic of money was in this world. Even more so than in other professions, asking who was getting paid, and how much, for what kind of work seemed too indelicate for words. As I became increasingly involved in the arts world, with readings and events, this grew even more apparent. I curated a performance event in a gallery, and, in my first-time naivety, didn’t speak about money beforehand. I didn’t expect much but assumed there would be some tokenistic remuneration or covering of costs – it was my mistake for not having checked – but there was not. I took out an overdraft to pay the artists I had invited to perform a meagre 50 quid each.

Art, while obsessed with its own outré finances – gleeful reporting on the latest record-breaking Lucian Freud sale and so on – also appeared to want to exist outside of the mundanity of finances, avoiding ­anything so crass as to consider how its non-superstars pay their rent. It struck me also that despite an unusually cavalier attitude towards its workers, it capitalised often on the aesthetics of ­struggle and radical ­politics. There were art shows ­displaying old union materials recontextualised, others about gender and transgenderism, Afrofuturism and anti-racism.

Through friends, I knew anecdotally of the discrepancy between the outward show of respect to these politics, and the reality. Institutions that had loud celebratory shows about trans issues would behind the scenes refuse to use correct pronouns for a trans member of staff. Their investment in progressive politics was based only on the sense that it looked good, cool, interesting.

Now, as the arts sector is ravaged these contradictions are becoming too stark to ignore. At the Southbank Centre and the Tate, workers are outraged by the brutal job cuts and cavalier manner in which they are being informed of them. For the first time in the Tate’s history its staff are striking, in opposition to the 313 employees being made redundant in the Tate’s lowest paid and most diverse areas of employment. The artist – and my one-time housemate – Jesse Darling, whose show “The Ballad of St Jerome” appeared at Tate Modern in 2018, wrote a statement of support for the strike action in which they conclude: “No amount of public programming on issues of race, class, and labour… can make up for the material fact of how the museum treats its workers. It is a grave error to imagine or behave as though the work that undergirds the public function of the museum is worthless; in fact, ‘the work’ would be nothing without it.”

The aesthetics of radical politics can’t be separated from their intent. Repurposing them for the cultural capital of an institution is not merely gauche but deeply offensive when that institution acts against the interests of its workers. Too often artists have felt hamstrung by their own economic considerations to speak out against these bodies. Increasingly, though, if feels that something profound is shifting, and that the art world’s distaste for discussing the mucky business of money and survival will be eroded by collective force. 

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid

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