Assuming that London does not see a new surge in COVID-19 cases and renewed lockdown measures, as has happened in Aberdeen and Leicester, the next few months should provide a valuable case study in how a major national public art institution can creatively reopen while adhering to new public health policies and dramatic changes in tourism habits.
For instance, the directors of the Tate family of museums will have followed the recently released National Museum Director’s Council policy document “Good Practice Guidelines for Reopening Museums After July 4th, 2020
.” This document outlines the steps art museums and other heritage institutions are advised to follow when reopening this summer and fall.
The “Good Practice Guidelines” document states that, “once Government guidance supports reopening, museums should be confident that: security of workers, public and sites can be sufficiently maintained in light of any operational changes to account for COVID-19”; and that “workforce safety and wellbeing can be supported.” The guide goes on to say that “museums will need to consider exhibition and loan schedules and content: exhibitions…may need to be adapted to prepare for visitors,” and that “some exhibitions may no longer be viable and alternatives may need to be developed.”
The strict safety protocols will change the way the public interacts with institutions. As the guidelines note, “capacities will be reduced significantly, on average down to 25–30% initially, though there will be differences across museums.” The document adds that the public’s “cultural appetites and ‘intent to visit’ will be altered,” and cautions that “many visitors are likely to ‘wait and see’ how organizations handle reopening.”
The Tate has presented a positive face to the public. “I’m thrilled to be reopening our galleries and can’t wait to welcome visitors back,” Maria Balshaw, director of Tate, said in a press release, adding that “we have also extended many major exhibitions and commissions, all of which feel as powerful…as they did when they first opened.” Ticketed exhibitions and temporary installations that have been extended include ’s Fons Americanus
(2019), ’s Year 3
(2019), and major retrospectives on
However, Tate’s reopening has been overshadowed by the news that 313 jobs
in the organization’s commercial arm, Tate Enterprises, will be cut from its publishing, retail, and catering operations. The workers’ trade union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), plans to go on strike on August 18th, 19th, 21st, and 22nd in protest against the redundancies. On August 7th, a PCS press release stated that it “is clear that the redundancies at [Tate Enterprises] are unnecessary. We are asking for just 10% of the expected government bailout of the gallery to save hundreds of jobs.” Mark Serwotka, the union’s General Secretary, told artnet News
: “It is staggering that after receiving a £7 million grant from the government, Tate has decided to treat loyal staff who support some of our country’s most important cultural sites, with redundancy.”
The Tate’s planned redundancies fall into a larger pattern of cultural institutions cutting frontline staff. The Southbank Centre has stated that 400 jobs are on the line. While the survival of cultural institutions is to be celebrated, COVID-19 has profoundly affected many individuals in the sector, including a disproportionate number of low-paid and Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff. Many museums are focused on offsetting the “loss of revenue from ticket sales and the drop in footfall at the gallery,” according to a Tate spokeswoman, rather than personnel retention.