Every annual report from the Tate Gallery’s Board of Trustees summarises its ‘Aims and Objectives’ by making reference to the gallery as a public good: The Tate’s goal, “drawn from the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act, is to increase the public’s understanding and enjoyment of British art from the sixteenth century to the present day and of international modern and contemporary art.”1 The Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota, has taken the time to translate this into a form that better captures its spirit: “Public collections,” he argues,
are expressions of the identity of a community, whether it be local, regional, national, or occasionally international …
The existence of a public collection necessitates and nurtures study and research, gathering of knowledge, and a developing appreciation of ourselves and of our relation to each other. Our understanding of our own strengths, achievements, and limitations is profoundly affected by awareness of earlier cultures and societies. 2
If any gallery can plausibly claim to be an ‘expression’ of such an expansive community, it is surely the Tate. For the past ten financial years, the Tate (all four taken together) has consistently been far and away the most popular gallery in the United Kingdom, receiving over 7 million visitors for every financial year from 2006 to 2013, and there is every reason to believe that 2013/14 will see it reach this number once again. The Tate Modern alone, receiving an average of 4.8 million people yearly over this period, is rivalled only by the British Museum (5.4 million) and the National Gallery (4.7 million). By comparison, the V&A averages just over 2.8 million.3
Serota’s argument does not merely claim that public collections, such as those of the Tate, are simply passive expressions of the community. For Serota, they necessitate, nurture, develop and affect the community’s collective knowledge and understanding of itself. Not everyone is as optimistic as Serota about the implications of this thought. The trustees of the Tate are all appointed by government, all but one directly by the Prime Minister. The majority of them have direct links to the corporate sector, including, of course, the current chair, Lord Browne, who was British Petroleum’s chief executive from 1995 until his appointment to the board in 2007. Lord Browne’s appointment and election to the chair is no coincidence: BP is the Tate’s longest running corporate sponsor. Furthermore, the Tate currently receives 40% of its funding from the state, and the remaining 60% from non-government sources – BP being only one important sponsor in a long list of sponsors from the wealthiest segment of the corporate sector (note that admissions are the smallest source of ‘self-generated’ income for the gallery).4 The Tate, in other words, has deep institutional ties of friendship with and dependence upon the richest and most powerful people in Britain and indeed the world. It is therefore hardly surprising that the ideological work performed by the Tate, right down to the level of curatorial strategies, should be shaped by their interests.
BP’s brand name sits prominently among numerous displays and events, including ‘BP Saturdays’ a weekly event for children. By the same token, “the Gift,” a wind turbine blade donated in an act of guerrilla art installation by Liberate Tate to the gallery in 2012 as part of their campaign to force the Tate to divest itself from BP was rejected on the grounds that it was not “in line with the current strategy, commitments and priorities for the Collection” (although the supporting material was accepted into the Tate’s archives).5 These are not the first instances of the gallery making choices based on the interests of big business. As far back as 1984, a catalogue of work by Hans Haacke critical of Exxon and Mobil was pulled from circulation after bogus complaints from Mobil, which the gallery either did not bother to investigate at the time or did investigate but complied with anyway.6 The Tate would therefore seem to neatly fit Haacke’s description of major players in the ‘consciousness industry’ as ‘managers of consciousness’. In 1987, Haacke argued that
The adjustments that museums make in the selection and promotion of works for exhibition and the way they present them create a climate that supports prevailing distributions of power and capital and persuades the populace that the status quo is the natural and best order of things. Rather than sponsoring intelligent, critical awareness, museums thus tend to foster appeasement.7
Museums are therefore seen as major producers of consciousness and hegemony – and the more intimate their links to power, the more dangerous their influence is upon the populace. To put it in Marxist terms, such institutions help to cement the rule of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. This kind of left wing critique therefore begins from the same starting point of many museum directors: that these institutions play a major and quite direct role in the symbolic life of the national (or international) community as a whole. The statistics now commonly collected by governments and by major museums and galleries puts us in a new and better position to assess this assumption – because of the Tate’s popularity, it will be the principal focus of my analysis.8
Table 1: Demographic analysis of Tate visitors from 2006 to 2013 in 000s
The nature and limitations of the data (cf. endnote 8) strongly favour an analysis which focuses on the population of UK residents that actually visits the gallery spaces rather than international visitors or participants in Tate sponsored events outside of the gallery walls. It follows that I am looking at the ideological significance of the use made of these specific spaces for the national rather than the international population. Within these limitations, the data allows us to usefully ask “whose consciousness is the target of the Tate?” and “which communities are finding expression there?” and find a few precise answers.
Table 19 gives data aggregated from the Tate’s annual accounts from 2006 to 2013. It is impossible not to notice how consistently under represented the NS-SEC groups 5-8 are. These groups comprise ‘lower supervisory and technical occupations’, ‘semi-routine occupations’, ‘routine occupations’, and ‘never worked and long-term unemployed’ – and thus map onto the Marxist class categories of the lower strata of the managerial middle class10, the working class, and the lumpenproletariat surprisingly well (this tells us something of the political interests of this population).
Graph 1: Visits by adults aged 16 and over from NS-SEC groups 5-8 by museum
As of the last census these groups together amounted to over 15.5 million people or 37.7% of the UK’s adult population;11 in comparison for the last 3 years, attendance from this group has been below 9% of the total domestic attendance at the Tate, and none of the available data ever puts it above 20%. The demographic data for museum and gallery attendance across the UK is not nearly as complete as those gathered by the Tate and use different measurements, but the “Taking Part” surveys for 2011/12 and 2012/13 allow for some rough comparisons. They show that among groups defined as of ‘moderate means’ and ‘hard pressed,’ 45% and 38.7% respectively visited a museum or gallery at least once between April 2012 and March 2013 – up from 42.7% and 32.5% in the previous twelve months. Narrow as this data is, the Tate shows a decline in museum attendance among lower socio-economic categories in this period.12 Furthermore, the most recent government measures for museum performance indicators demonstrate that although the Tate was the most visited of any government sponsored museum or gallery in the years 2010/11 and 2011/12, it performed relatively poorly compared to the other 16 sponsored institutions in attendance by people within the NS-SEC groups 5-8. As Graph 113 shows, the Tate’s share of visitors from this population was middling at best, and dwarfed by the National Museums of Liverpool and the National Museum of Science and Industry. The Tate is a clearly a gallery of the elites, even more so than most of the other sponsored institutions – although clearly the majority of gallery attendance by people in NS-SEC groups are not going to any of the major institutions.
Arguably as interesting as the data derived from the Tate’s official statistics is what cannot be derived at all. In compliance with performance indicators imposed by the DCMS, the Tate measures attendance from members of lower socio-economic groups, children, people with disabilities and from ethnic minorities. As Table 1 indicates, it is not performing brilliantly in most of these categories – although it is doing well enough to maintain government funding. But these categories themselves are never broken down; for example, of the visitors from ethnic minorities, we do not know how many were children, from overseas, or from NS-SEC groups 5-8 – presumably one person of colour is as good as another.
The Tate performs a large amount of qualitative research on its visitors using surveys and interviews. In comparison to this (voluntary) research, the quantitative data gives the impression of i’s dotted and t’s crossed but no more. In part thanks to its qualitative research, the Tate maintains a good rate of visitor satisfaction: the percentage of visitors surveyed who would recommend a visit to others is consistently in the 90s. The Tate takes great pains to respond and learn from this research14 but the previous discussion sheds a light on it that the Tate is not likely to explicitly discuss. The statistics clearly demonstrate that qualitative research performed with a sample population of a few dozen or even a few hundred may easily be composed entirely of white, able-bodied members of the ruling class and the upper strata of the middle class. It is from their input the the Tate learns to shape its curatorial strategies. This brings us back to Haacke’s “Museums as Managers of Consciousness.” The Tate’s popularity indicates the effectiveness of its qualitative research and curatorial strategies, strategies which Nick Prior has astutely summarised as “not just rest[ing] on the (curatorial) authority of its collection … but [which] finds ways of responding to the different frames of reference of its audience”15 – but this audience is emphatically not composed of the exploited and oppressed who need to be manipulated into giving consent.
The censorship which the Tate sometimes exercises, does not, therefore seem to have a great deal to do with what it does not want the nation as whole to hear or with presenting a coherent ideological front to the working class (with manufacturing consent) – rather, they are examples of what some members of the ruling class find themselves unwilling to say to other members of that same class. This suggests that, to the extent that it is at all accurate to claim that the Tate produces ideology for the working class, it is only via a conversation which some sections of the ruling class are having with other sections in the process of imagining to each other the world which they rule. Speaking in a functionalist vein, the Tate’s ideological production serves the symbolic/ ideological/ethical needs of the classes which actually participate directly in this production at and around the Tate, for whom the Tate acts as a repository and processing house of their symbolic resources.
Arguably, the longest running of these, conducted partly in the form of market research, has to do with the status of art itself as a symbolic resource which the ruling class needs, versus the marketable commodity which the ruling classes cannot stop themselves from turning it into. This perennial anxiety was underlined in the very first paragraph of the opening essay of the catalogue for the 2009 Tate Triennial: curators, claims Nicolas Bourriaud,
have an ethical duty not to let signs and images vanish into the abyss of indifference or commercial oblivion, to find words to animate them as something other than products destined for financial speculation or mere amusement.16
Prior suggests that the Tate is an exemplar of the strategies which museums are finding to deal with this problem. The museum “sets itself up for the critic as well as the tourist, the artist as well as the ‘ordinary’ visitor.”17 (65) Within limits, Prior is surely correct that the Tate must position its collection as polyvalent enough to be object of contemplation, spectacle, investment and/or consumption just as one pleases. But, this strategy is not necessarily stable nor was it automatically arrived at. The Tate, with other institutions, had to engage in symposia and forums (such as the one from which Serota’s position was quoted), market research, and empirical trial and error in order to get there. Perhaps the ‘solution’ which the Tate has employed to deal with the problems posed by the interpenetration of commodity exchange and the art world allows it, for the moment, to sustain its collection as a symbolic resource and develop it as a marketing tool simultaneously — but it is not necessarily the solution favoured by other art institutions (the Guggenheim, for example). If the maw of ‘commercial oblivion’ threatens to drain the art world of its meanings, this is not a danger that can be skirted by clever curatorcraft. It is rather an existential fact for art under capitalism; while it is true that capitalism will never totally annihilate art as a symbolic resource simply because humans are symbolic creatures, negotiating this tendency has become the central concern for the conscientious art director. (Ultimately, though, only socialism can rescue meaning for art)
The curatorial practices of the Tate might best be seen as an intervention – on this issue and many others besides – by fractions of a ruling class which is divided along sectional interests. Since this is a conversation to which the exploited and oppressed are not generally privy, in addition to the usual and vital practice of ideological critique which uncovers what is not-said or hidden by a text, we should ‘read’ the Tate also for what it reveals and listen for what we might over hear. Furthermore, given that this conversation is only possible on the basis of the social surplus created by the exploited classes perhaps an even more mischievous reading practice is in order: one which wilfully ‘misunderstands’ in order to misappropriate these same resources for our ends. Perhaps there is a possibility that – if only we could find ways to steal them – the symbolic resources so carefully cultivated and domesticated by the likes of British Petroleum nevertheless have something to offer the rest of us who have interests entirely antagonistic to theirs or who believe, with Liberate Tate, that the world will not be safe while BP exists in it.
2Nicholas Serota, “Why Save Art for the Nation?”, Curator: The Museum Journal 48, no. 1 (January 2005) p. 14-15
7Haacke, “Museums as Managers of Consciousness” in Hans Haacke, Unfinished Business (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987) p. 47
8A few comments on the nature of the data are in order. Numerically, the Tate receives between two to three times as many unique visitors to its website as physical visitors to its four physical galleries. In 2011, the year in which Tate Online saw the greatest number of unique visits – over 19 million, in comparison, there were just under 7.5 million physical visitors. This suggests, unsurprisingly, that the Internet is now a major site of ideological production, dissemination and consumption for the Tate. Unfortunately, the nature of the Internet is such that we know very little about these on-line visitors: whether they are from the UK or elsewhere, their race, gender, and class are all impossible to determine. Similarly, overseas visitors made up between 40% and 50% of the Tate’s visitors between 2008 and 2013 – but we know nothing about their age, race, origin or gender and can only make broad guesses regarding their class based on the fact that they can afford to travel. (Annual Accounts, from 2008-2009 to 2012-2013)Although it is clear that the Tate plays a major role in the international art scene, what this actually means for manufacturing consent at the level of a globalised capitalism cannot plausibly be approached from this data. For this reason, I will focus on the role the Tate plays within the UK, but even here we encounter some limitations. It is difficult to find data on Tate programs that extend beyond the walls of the gallery itself, for example, ARTIST ROOMS or educational programs in schools. What data is available, however, suggests that these are numerically far less important than the actual gallery spaces; the number of children who participated in Tate sponsored outreach programs reached a record 579 thousand children this year, more than double that of 2012 – but compare this with total gallery attendance from UK residents in 2013: over 4 million. Furthermore, we once again know nothing about these children (Annual Accounts 2012-2013, 12). Finally, we have absolutely no data on how Tate displays might affect public consciousness beyond Tate’s official Internet activities, its outreach programs, and the actual gallery displays: who reads the press releases and how? Who sees the advertisements? How many blog posts, tweets, or Facebook updates make reference to the Tate – and how significant would these be? In other words, we do not know much about the transmission belts that must exist between the ‘official’ life of the Tate and the rest of society.
10It is true that not every Marxist agrees that it is possible to speak of a managerial middle class, but for useful analysis of this class category see: Guglielmo Carchedi, On the economic determination of social classes (London; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) and Alex Callinicos, “The ‘New Middle Class’ and socialist politics” in The changing working class: Essays on class structure today, Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman, (London: Bookmarks, 1987) p. 13-52
12Department for Culture, Media and Sports, Taking Part – Statistical Release June 2012, p . 21 and Taking Part 2012/13 Quarter 4 June 2013 p. 21
13Department for Culture, Media and Sports, Sponsored Museums: Performance Indicators 2011/12, October 23, 2012, (London: www.culture.gov.uk, 2012) p. 8, Figure 6.
14For an example see Barbara J. Soren, “Audience Research Informs Strategic Planning in Two Art Museums ,” Curator: The Museum Journal 43, no. 4 (October 2000). p. 324-342
15Nick Prior, “Having One’s Tate and Eating It” in Art and its Publics: Museum studies at the millennium, ed. Andrew McClellan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 65
16Nicolas Bourriaud, “Altermodern” in Altermodern Tate Triennial ed. Nicolas Bourriaud (London: Tate Publishing, 2009) p. 11