As protesters take on the Tate, is the fear of demonstrations causing galleries to take fewer risks?

A protest at the Tate Modern proves art continues to court controversy. But do institutions feel stifled by such attention?

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This week, a protest gathered inside the Tate Modern. A group, including feminist activists Sisters Uncut, swarmed the London gallery dressed in black to protest the displaying of artist Carl Andre, who was acquitted of killing his wife and fellow artist Ana Mendieta in 1985.  

Around 60 people, almost all women, congregated in front of St Paul’s dressed in funeral garb before marching to the gallery. They chanted as they went, shouting "I was pushed, I did not fall" in reference to the Cuban artist’s death after falling 34 floors from the window of her New York apartment. Andre denies the accusation that he pushed Mendieta.

The group also called for Mendieta’s work, which the Tate owns, to be displayed instead of Andre’s.

The group then linked arms in front of the gallery to block the entrance. At one point, protesters rushed the barriers, pounding on the glass front of the building with banners and their bodies in an attempt to get the attention of the people inside. There had been rumours that Andre would be at the opening, but if he was he stayed away.

Protesters bang on the glass of the Tate Modern
Credit: Ellie Bradford, Protesters bang on the glass of the Tate after bursting through the barrier

Protesters then moved to block the other entrance, before reconvening in front of the building for a series of readings and speeches.

Passersby stopped to watch as women told their own stories of abuse and marginalisation.

"I don't see people like me in the galleries"

Joanna, from Sisters Uncut, said: “We think that the Tate exhibiting Andre’s work and refusing to exhibit Ana Mendieta’s work shows they are complicit in male violence, in the ongoing situation of domestic violence in this country.”

She added: “I think it’s unlikely that the Tate is going to remove his work but we can certainly make it as uncomfortable as possible for them.”

A protester speaks into a microphone at the demonstration
Credit: Ellie Bradford, A protester tells her own story using a megaphone

Other protesters cited frustration at the lack of minority representation in the gallery. One art student said she had reconsidered going to art school, because, “I don’t see people like me in the galleries”.

Protesters Aurelia and Christopher, both art students, said Mendieta’s story resonated with their own experiences. Aurelia demanded:  “What do you have to do to experience any personal or professional or judicial consequences for what you do to women if you’re a man?”

BP ends Tate sponsorship

As organisers told the assembled crowd before the protests, the Tate tends to take a tolerant view of demonstrations.

Last summer, activists from Liberate Tate occupied the gallery overnight and scrawled climate change messages in charcoal on the floor of the Turbine Hall, in protest at sponsorship by the oil company BP. In November 2015 at the Tate Britain, a dozen people tattooed each other with the CO2 concentrations of the year they were born in front of one of the gallery’s paintings.

The Tate announced in March that BP had ended its 27-year association with the gallery, after years of protests. BP said the opposition was not a factor in the decision, instead citing a “challenging business environment”.

But the demonstrations continue. Just a couple of weeks ago, the British Museum was forced to close temporarily when activists who want the British Museum to end its deal with BP scaled the side of the building. It was believed to be the first time a protest had actually caused the museum to close.

The Edinburgh Festival was also disrupted last year by calls for an end to BP patronage, as well as boycotts of Israeli performers Incubator Theatre Company, who had to cancel their run.

Marginalised women

Art is by its very nature political, and, as an activist at the protest said: “It’s partly a story of who is in and who is out.”

For them, Mendieta had become not just a victim but a vessel, a demonstration of the experience of many women of colour who also find themselves marginalised in the art world.

Mendieta was a Cuban-born artist who arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1961 as part of a government programme to relocate people from Cuba. She spent her first weeks in the country in refugee camps before moving through a variety of foster homes.

Her art focused on the female form, and in a 1973-78 series she created silhouettes of her body in materials including grass and earth.

She was a rising star at the time of her death but has achieved a cult following in the years since. After a retrospective at the Hayward gallery in London in 2013, her popularity has increased.

Activists have protested Andre’s work at several galleries, including the Beacon museum in New York last year. In an example of protest mimicking art, they entered the museum and walked around Andre’s exhibition crying individually, before meeting in the show’s main room to sob simultaneously.

Galleries become sites of contention

Protests at UK art galleries are now so common that Arts Council England has released new guidelines for galleries on managing disturbances.  The guidelines say governing bodies are becoming increasingly risk-averse, due to fear of demonstrations.

The Barbican cancelled a controversial art installation back in 2014 which featured chained black actors, after protests outside the venue.

It said at the time: “We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work.”

Glen Tarman is part of the group Liberate Tate which has been campaigning to stop BP sponsorship of the gallery. He says protests against corporate sponsorship of art galleries and museums are increasing: "We are a part of a broader movement around cultural divestment. The importance of museums and galleries in society is growing. They are becoming sites of contention in ways they hadn't before." 

Lisa Levy, a Brooklyn-based artist who sat naked on a toilet for two days to protest "the bullsh*t art world" said: "I think art is a great form of protest. I think art can communicate protest consciously and unconsciously. I also think that artists can't control the way their work is interpreted, aside from the message that they are trying to convey."

For the activists in London, it’s not about censorship or control but rather the opening up of the art world to more marginalised voices. The Tate slogan proclaims “Art changes, we change”. For the group calling themselves “Where is Ana Mendieta?”, that change isn’t happening fast enough.