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View of London’s Southbank Centre.
View of London’s Southbank Centre.

London Art Scene Unsettled as Tate Workers Vote to Strike, Southbank Centre Challenged over Major Restructuring

A ballot held by the United Kingdom’s PCS Union saw a sweeping majority of Tate workers vote to strike unless management pledges to save hundreds of jobs at Tate Enterprises, the London museum’s commercial arm, by August 17. The subsidiary’s mid-June announcement that it would eliminate around three hundred retail, catering, and publishing sector positions throughout its London, Liverpool, and St. Ives locations drew uproar at the institution, now facing a possible work stoppage from over one hundred staff members. Activists and workers gathered to protest outside Tate Modern on July 27, the day the museum reopened after months of pandemic-induced closure. Their campaign demands that the museum divert 10 percent of its expected $9 million government bailout to protect the at-risk positions, which activists say are held mostly by people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Tate Enterprises leadership says that the business has already allocated $6.5 million from its reserves to support employees, and that although government money is on its way to Tate, none would likely be infused into the commercial subsidiary. “In order to reduce losses once the galleries reopen, and to resize in line with expected demand in the longer term, we have entered a period of collective consultation with our staff,” directors Hamish Anderson and Carmel Allen said in a statement. “We are working hard to retain as many of these staff as possible and have modeled as optimistically as we can with a view to ensuring the long-term future of the business.”

Mass job cuts also loom over London’s Southbank Centre, whose employees have published an open letter decrying management’s plans to shift to a “start-up” model after terminating two-thirds of its staff—a loss of four hundred jobs that, the letter says, will similarly disproportionately impact Black and minority ethnic workers. On Saturday, hundreds demonstrated at the center, which is the United Kingdom’s largest arts complex and plans to remain closed until next spring. (The organization’s Hayward Gallery, however, opened its doors on August 1.)

“The redundancies . . . will disproportionately affect the lowest-paid employees (reducing staff numbers by 63–68 percent only equates to a reduction in payroll of 30–35 percent),” reads the letter, which has amassed over 1,500 signatures. “We believe that the most precarious workers should not be penalized for historic financial negligence and mismanagement, and we demand that the Southbank Centre adheres to its anti-racism statement by actively protecting the diversity of its workforce.”

Although the UK promised a $2 billion lifeline to the cultural sector in June, it remains unclear how much money will go to Southbank Centre, if any at all.

“We sympathize with the uncertainty and anxiety that this is causing and respect our staff's right to express their opinions in this way,” a spokesperson for Southbank Centre told the Art Newspaper. “We’ve also been made aware of an online petition and are concerned by the extent of the inaccuracies contained within it. We will continue to work with our staff to ensure that we remain transparent, open and honest and share all information with them as we try to navigate our way through this unprecedented crisis.” 

[Update: 8/7/2020, 1:15 PM]: Southbank Centre employees have since responded in detail to the Southbank leadership team’s statement, which they claim is deliberately misleading.