Art Market

How the Tate Museums Reopened amid Major Changes and Turmoil

Samuel McIlhagga
Aug 12, 2020 8:00PM

A visitor wears a face mask at the Tate Britain on July 24, 2020, in London, England. Photo by John Phillips. Image via Getty Images.

Since March 23rd, when the United Kingdom’s lockdown was announced, both commercial galleries and major institutions have had a tough time. However, among the first to reopen was the Tate family of museums—Tate Modern and Tate Britain in London, Tate Liverpool, and Tate St Ives—on July 27th.

The Tate museums face the extra challenge of less controlled footfall and open admission policies when protecting their visitors against COVID-19. Indeed, the Tate Modern became Britain’s dominant cultural institution this decade, with a footfall of 5.9 million people in 2018, surpassing the British Museum’s 5.8 million visitors, for the first time, according to a BBC report.

The Tate name is intimately attached, in the British imagination, to public-facing galleries. Unlike many ticketed exhibition spaces, all of Tate’s permanent collections have been predominantly unticketed and open to the public since 2001, the year Chancellor Gordon Brown made admission to national galleries free in his annual budget. It is therefore unlikely the Tate will introduce permanent and total ticketing of its galleries to affect public health outcomes. Nevertheless, we might see a temporary growth in ticketed exhibitions in the near future to allow for easier track and trace procedures and collection of visitor data.

Notably, American institutions of similar scale and public mission such as the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art are still closed as New York catches up with London. This has especially affected the Metropolitan Museum, which laid off about 20 percent of its staff and announced it would not reopen its Met Breuer outpost after lockdown eases, giving over the Brutalist building to the Frick Collection. A survey conducted by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) found that a third of all museums in the United States may never reopen.

The U.K. government has provided some financial ballast to prevent similar closures, announcing a £1.57 billion ($1.96 billion) investment into the cultural, heritage, and arts economy on July 5th. This has been a welcome, if late, development in the U.K. culture sector considering continental European arts stimulus packages such as Berlin’s fund of €500 million ($553 million), which was declared within days of lockdown in March, or France’s €5 billion ($5.6 billion) arts and culture rescue fund announced by Emmanuel Macron, which dwarfs the U.K.’s offering.

“We have supported our museums and galleries throughout these challenging times,” a spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport said. “This includes developing detailed reopening guidance with medical experts so visitors can enjoy these important cultural institutions in person and safely again. We will continue to support museums and galleries and the wonderful collections they hold as part of our £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund.”

Within this delicate financial context, the reopening of the several, sprawling Tate galleries is particularly impressive. The Tate flung open its doors just weeks after the National Gallery’s successful reopening on July 8th and the partial reopening of Somerset House on July 16th.

New rules

Cildo Meireles, installation view of Babel, 2001, at Tate Modern, 2020. Courtesy of Tate Galleries.


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 Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus (2019), Steve McQueen’s Year 3 (2019), and major retrospectives on Andy Warhol, Aubrey Beardsley, and Naum Gabo.

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.

New routes

Kara Walker, installation view of Fons Americanus, 2019, at Tate Modern, 2020. Courtesy of Tate Galleries.

In conformity with the “Good Practice Guidelines” suggestion that galleries will need “alterations to the fabric or the flow of the building…to enable social distancing,” the Tate has introduced a number of free, one-way, walking routes. Tate Modern has opted for two routes taking in the Natalie Bell Building and the Blavatnik Building, an annex inaugurated in 2017. Tate Britain has engineered two routes that include McQueen’s Year 3 installation. The Liverpool location has chosen a singular one-way route covering the temporary installation Ferocious Love (2020) by Mikhail Karikis. The Tate’s location in St Ives has also chosen a strict linear route that explores its modern collections and local curation. This will effectively end the habit many visitors have developed over the years of rambling freerange around exhibition spaces. Whether or not this level of audience control continues after the danger of COVID-19 has passed is an open question.

The benefits of public-facing art institutions that audiences took for granted, pre-pandemic, might well be lost in the changes enacted by the Tate and others. There is a tight calculus being performed by governments, museum directors, and visitors between the positive educational, economic, and cultural benefits of reopening vital institutions, and the risks to public health necessarily involved in the process.

The U.K. government’s decision to allow major galleries such as the Tate to reopen is also utilitarian. It was partly motivated by the need for institutions to survive this unique gap in their revenue and continue to contribute to the web of organizations and individuals that make up the U.K. cultural sector.

For artists such as Lisa Brice, who exhibited at the Tate Britain in 2018, the cost/ benefit analysis of the Tate reopening comes down to a deep human need to be physically in touch with art. “After months of images glaring back at me from a computer screen, the thought of being able to take in artwork as it was intended…is both exciting and reassuring,” she said. “I have longed for the regular ritual of visiting [gallery] halls and walls over the past months.”

Samuel McIlhagga