Layoffs, Protests and Strikes: Within the Battle for London’s Museums | London night customary



Rum, whistles and screams of indignation from the staff are not what Tate visitors are used to. But for weeks now, the tranquil London locations of the art institution have been hit by shock waves in the museum and gallery sector. The announcement of 313 layoffs in the Tate trading companies has become a lightning rod for long simmering resentment.

The Covid 19 pandemic was accompanied by a year of falling visitor numbers and drastic cuts – and young professionals are hardest hit. Protests have spread from Tate locations to Parliament Square. Waves of anger and dissatisfaction are being felt across the capital’s arts sector, with allegations that government subsidies were used to keep paying the industry’s fat cats while low-paid hospitality and junior employees were laid off, with various workers in particular are affected. On the other hand, the arts sector is facing an unprecedented drop in sales. With further restrictions announced this week, tensions will only increase.

The Tate Galleries in particular are at the forefront of a furious battle. Director Maria Balshaw, who has come under heavy fire, said in August, “It is with great sadness that we lost many of our colleagues at Tate Enterprises.” She made “the loss of revenue during the lockdown and the dramatic drop in visitor numbers in our galleries since reopening ” responsible.

A sense of injustice was palpable and quickly became personal. An Instagram account seized beach photos of Balshaw’s family posted by their 23-year-old son on his personal account and asked, “Why is she on vacation at a time like this?”

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Crowds protest the downsizing at the National Theater and Southbank Center


How did we get here? The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced a £ 1.57 billion bailout fund for troubled institutions just a fortnight after the Tate announced job losses in July – with £ 7 million going to the Tate due to theirs Size were intended – but it was made clear that the money would be earmarked to help the company stay afloat rather than save jobs.

“It’s just not fair for the price of the pandemic to be paid by the lowest-paid, most precarious, and diverse teams in the Tate,” said one striker. Concerned about their possible layoff packages, the protesters who spoke to me asked for anonymity. But the consequences are universal. Politicians and trade unions are warning of a “tsunami” of job losses in the arts.

The management of the Southbank Center has announced that it will lay off two-thirds of its employees, which would result in the possible loss of 400 jobs. The Royal Academy, which receives no public subsidies, is so scarce that it is reportedly considering selling a Michelangelo masterpiece, Taddei Tondo, so as not to lose 150 jobs. “We are in the most difficult economic and cultural situation any of us have ever been in,” Balshaw told me on the phone yesterday. “Nobody ever wants to fire someone. But the economic challenge facing the arts, not just the Tate but organizations across the UK, is terrifying. ”

Across the sector, museum senior staff are unsurprisingly concerned. Most feel trapped between a rock and a hard place and are alarmed by the online discourse. Much of this is happening on social media, with a “digital strike” calling for a U-turn. “The pandemic has exposed and accelerated the deep-rooted and systemic inequalities that have long existed in the arts and culture sectors,” says one curator. “These are inequalities that are rooted in racism, ableism, classism and sexism. Since cuts and layoffs disproportionately affect those of us who are otherwise underrepresented in the industry, we are deeply concerned about the cultural landscape that will emerge after the pandemic. “

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The museum industry is forecasting a drop in visitors of between 50 and 75 percent, and recovery is not in sight until next summer at the earliest. At Tate, the ax has fallen hardest on Tate Enterprises, the commercial branch of the institution; 313 employees in publishing, retail and hospitality were told that they would be laid off. Tate union members argue that alternative means of raising the £ 1 million needed to save paid jobs at Tate Enterprises have not been considered, from reopening Covid-safe souvenir shops to diverting upfront money from the sale of exhibition tickets . But Balshaw says, “It is just not correct to say that these job losses target the lowest paid. These are necessary job losses because we currently have 20 percent of the normal number of visitors and we have no prospect of that changing. “

A manager at another gallery says, “Ultimately, if we have six months to a year of less consumer trust, we will lose money. You can’t pretend gift and coffee shops are a core activity. ”The DCMS bailout, as many observe, is money spent on accrued income losses, not to repair incomes they won’t earn in the future. Do strikers want galleries and museums to consider selling works of art? “No, but we expect creative solutions from creative institutions,” says the union.

Local riots first increased in late July, but the number of weekend protests has increased this month, with dozens of people from the PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union) Tate United shouting “Shame on Tate” and holding signs with slogans such as “Coronavirus No Excuse to Fire Us” and “Tate eats different arts, spits out different employees” outside the Tate Modern. Their demands include no layoffs, while everyone at Tate is paid more than £ 100,000 and that 10 percent of the £ 7 million government earmarked for Tate will be invested to save jobs.

“Everyone is shocked by the online stuff,” says a senior museum director. “We’re all afraid of being canceled. The artists will all take sides, and that will be difficult for us. They all tend to put the really tricky things in their Instagram stories to make them go away. But I don’t think that’s acceptable. I’ve heard that coworkers have had really personal attacks. It gives it a personal touch. I don’t think there was that before. “

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The terms of the rescue package felt like “a kick in the teeth,” said one protester. It is not a one-way street, emphasizes a union representative. “We thought this was good news, that this could all be over, maybe we can’t save all 313 jobs, but maybe we can save at least 100. Then we were quickly told that none of the money would be used to save. “Our jobs.”

The process was “botched”, told me a union member; thin ears, freaked out. People who have been with Tate for 30 years are losing their jobs. The union also claims Tate has outsourced several visitor experience assistant functions to outside contractor Securitas when they said it could instead switch Tate Enterprise workers who are at risk of layoffs. “At the beginning of the summer, Securitas placed an ad in which it was incorrectly stated that it was a job advertisement with Tate,” says a spokesman for the Tate. “In fact, they were recruiting for their pool of employees, not specifically for Tate roles. This ad has therefore been removed. When Securitas recruited its own employees, they offered the departing Tate Enterprises employees preferential treatment. “

Fears have also been expressed that job losses could disproportionately affect black, Asian and ethnic minorities (BAME). In an employee email, Balshaw and Chief Operating Officer Vicky Cheetham wrote, “First of all, it’s important to say that we won’t know the outcome until the selection process is complete. However, it is likely that the percentage of BAME colleagues at Tate Enterprises will end up largely unchanged. ”They also said that Tate gave Tate Enterprises £ 5 million from its reserves to cover losses.

Activism online is much more direct, far-reaching, and frankly, straightforward. The White Pube, an Instagram account with 64.7k followers – and the account that highlighted Balshaw’s vacation – has been tirelessly posting for months on topics of perceived inequality and injustice (“f *** Tate” is a recurring call to arms). “You have to use your visibility to scream,” says Zarina Muhammad of The White Pube, a full-time art critic and part-time activist. “There’s no good tone for the rest of the industry in general, which is already quite inhospitable for blue-collar workers, blacks and browns, POC workers and disabled workers who end up working as super-underpaid entry-level entry-level jobs in first place.”

“[They] made the campaign very personal in a way that just isn’t helpful, ”says Balshaw, who called it“ ridiculous ”the idea of ​​living big and sitting on a pretty cold English beach,” which turned out to be Dungeness . “Requiring directors to be on vacation in mid-August after five months of solid work is not okay.”


The Department of Accountability, an account released this month, has also released to illustrate the yawning gap in salaries between those who have been laid off and those in senior management who keep their jobs in institutions across the UK. “We hope that by making this salary data visible, we will induce institutions and donors to behave more ethically,” says one representative, again on condition of anonymity. None of these problems are new, they emphasize.

Unsurprisingly, the point of cultural settlement is palpable. “The already limited opportunities to get into the sector are almost non-existent, especially for professions like curating, which rely on years of experience and a higher education, and which often cost aspiring curators several thousand pounds in tuition,” says Elise Bell, a freelance art writer . “What we are left with is a culture that pays even the most competitive positions with wages that most working-class applicants cannot afford, not just in London. With demands for a more diverse workforce in the culture industry, there is concern that the economic impact of Covid will effectively undo any significant potential for change. “

“The management is not involved,” sighs a union member. “You just ask yourself what you are worth at all.”