The Tate Strike and the Casualisation of Labour in the Art World

Maisie Allen is a third year Liberal Arts student at KCL majoring in English Literature. She is passionate about accessibility within the arts, socialism, feminist podcasts, and her cello.

[Featured Image: The Tate Modern. Source.]

The creation of the category of so-called ‘modern art’ in the 20th century was devised as a protest against the bourgeoisie ownership of arts and culture, seeking to make art more accessible and expressive, and galleries like the Tate Modern became pioneers of these exhibitions. The radical nature of modern art and its seeming innovativeness became causes for controversy, pushing boundaries of social codes of conduct in order to explore questions of gender, sexuality, race, and class among other markers of identity categorisation. However, even with the best intentions, once modern art is boxed away into the very institutions that it sought to challenge in the first place, the radical nature of it becomes diluted in favour of its commodification and appeasement to a more traditional audience. 

This has never been more clear than when Tate Enterprises, the commercial branch of the Tate Group, cut approximately 300 jobs across its retail, catering, and corporate events sectors this summer as a response to the impact of the coronavirus crisis. Subsequently, workers across the Tate Group went on strike for six weeks, picketing the museum, before a deal was reached with the Tate Group and the workers’ unions last month. These redundancies emerged, affecting the lowest-paid workers within the Tate, despite the fact that the Tate received a significant share of the government’s £1.57 billion rescue package for the UK’s arts and culture sector. It’s important to note that these low-paid workers within the commercial sector of the arts and culture industry, are often people of colour, and women; precarious employment contracts are just one aspect of how the economic system upholds their marginalisation and oppression. 

All of this begs the question though, of why we need a commercial side to art, especially given the radical and challenging background of modern art and its relationship with the avant-garde. The co-opting of modernist and post-modernist creations into a neoliberal agenda that wants to keep rigid class structures in place is something which is incredibly dangerous and fails to recognise that the reason modernism emerged at the turn of the 20th century is because we saw the emergence of the so-called mass society and increasing levels of democratisation and class fluidity. 

Art was supposed to be for everyone, not just an elite few who could afford cultural exposure, something which has also always been inherently gendered and racialised; major cultural institutions like the Tate Modern still uphold racial hierarchies in their hallowed walls and this is emphasised in the division of labour across their gallery. The fact that the labour provided by workers in their commercial sector was so casually cast aside when the Director of the Tate Group, Maria Balshaw, is on a six figure salary (albeit still less than her male predecessor) speaks volumes of how the world of art and culture values those not explicitly involved in the processes of creation and installation. 

Whilst it is inevitable that creative institutions would be hit significantly hard by the coronavirus pandemic and will be facing these ramifications for an extended period of time afterwards, workers resorting to strike action in the middle of this should be deeply unsettling to many – strike action is often used as a last resort and is never thought of lightly. Considering that it also took six weeks before the dispute was eventually settled between the workers’ union, PCS Tate United, and the Tate Group is one which reeks of financial hypocrisy and disregard for the contributions of these workers, keeping the wheels of the well-oiled Tate machine spinning as a financially affluent tourist attraction alongside its artistic credentials. 


Nevertheless, the notion of an art gallery, or even art itself being viewed as nothing but a tourist attraction; famous paintings to brag about seeing to boost one’s own cultural capital calls into consideration about who gets to enjoy and appreciate art removed from an underlying economic agenda, which I’ve raised in a previous article for The Clandestine. This isn’t to say that art can’t be enjoyed in this context, and galleries definitely have a role to play in the promotion of widening participation within their institutions, but when the institutions themselves preach inclusivity and progression, without paying the same dues to their staff, they are simply perpetuating the same cycles of inequality and elitism modern art, and its creators, sought to avoid.

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