(Sothiou, 2017, a self-portrait by Khadija Saye, who died in the Grenfell Tower fire, from her Venice Biennale series Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe, on display at Tate Britain. Photograph: Khadija Saye)
When she got home that evening, Balshaw wrote to colleagues running arts organisations along the Thames – Jude Kelly, artistic director at the Southbank Centre, Rufus Norris at the National Theatre, and others, as a gesture of unity and support. “By 12 o’clock the next day we’d issued a joint statement saying: ‘We are horrified, but we are open, and we are for the spirit of London and its people.’”
It is only afterwards that this strikes me as a bold move for the newbie in town – she has taken over from Nicholas Serota, who held the post for almost three decades, overseeing a period of expansion, including the opening of Tate Modern and Tate St Ives. But Balshaw is known as much for her charm as for her capacity to get things done. While at the Whitworth she raised more than £15m for an ambitious renovation. She also has a reputation for being warm, accessible and good at managing egos. Publicly funded arts institutions should come into their own in tumultuous times, says Balshaw. “It’s not about taking positions left or right politically, but about holding a space where things that are at issue in our world can be explored, because that’s what artists do.” You can’t separate “the arts” or “artists” from events that are going on around them. Something like the Grenfell Tower fire “touches us as arts organisations because we’re part of a city”, she says, speaking of the decision to display work by the artist Khadija Saye, who died in the fire.
Tate curator Andrew Wilson knew Saye well and had been working with her for the past three years. The work is displayed in her memory, and for all who lost their lives: “That’s what an arts organisation should do when somebody who had such extraordinary creative potential has been lost,” says Balshaw.