It is with great sadness that I am resigning from my position as Artist in Residence at the Tate. Before I disclose my reasons for leaving I want to explicitly say that the Schools and Teachers team are doing transformative and phenomenal work, and that I hold no hard feeling towards you individually or the programme you facilitate, only pride for being accepted into the position.
My reasons for resigning are simple - in section 14 of my contract it states ‘Tate is committed to treating all our employees, visitors, and contractors with dignity and respect.’ I feel that these standards have not been met and that the whole time I am part of the Tate’s institutional mechanisms, I am not being treated with dignity or respect. My resignation will hopefully spotlight the invisible inequalities of the institution.
I am speaking explicitly about the comments made by Maria Balshaw, who when questioned about an ongoing investigation against an alleged perpetrator, and sexual harassment and violence on a broader spectrum, said, ‘“But I personally have never suffered any such issues. Then, I wouldn’t. I was raised to be a confident woman who, when I encountered harassment, would say, ‘Please don’t’… or something rather more direct.” These comments come during a powerful reckoning on sexual assault and harassment, with the creative industries pledging to make change through campaigns such as #MeToo and #TimesUp.
As an activist who campaigns against the cuts to domestic violence services, but also an activist that campaigns explicitly about the erasure of women from the institution, it should be no surprise these words come as a huge slap in the face. I cannot describe to you the personal shame I feel as a survivor of domestic violence, to work for someone who could think so little of me whilst simultaneously profiting off of my ‘survivorness’ and the work I dare to make about it.
I attended the public meeting hosted at Tate Modern with Maria, hoping that she would apologise and hold her hands up. I was saddened to watch a woman still completely unable to take ownership of anything but self proclaimed ‘ignorance’. She was confident in saying she didn't understand how previous remarks she had made regarding black men and fried chicken could be seen as racist. She was also confident in saying that the journalist she spoke to at The Times had taken her comments out of context. Maria seemed to have no accountability, and used ignorance as a weapon to rid her of all sins.
If she wishes to wear this apparent racial and sexist ignorance as a badge, I am forced to question, how did she become appointed to the role? How can anyone so proudly ignorant be the head of the UK’s largest cultural institution?
When I entered the institution of the Tate, I was hoping I could have the same influence inside, as I did outside. In 2015, I co-organised two protests under the name WHEREISANAMENDEITA, demanding acknowledgement of Ana Mendieta in the face of the showcasing of her alleged perpetrators works. Within a few months, Ana’s work was being celebrated, leading onto many film screenings and spotlights on her - this happened as a direct response to the two protests. *
We see this echoed with the way Tate chooses to work with radical, queer, black, brown, trans, working class, and other marginalised identities. Although I feel like I have been supported by my direct team, the bigger picture speaks of a distraction technique.
I feel strongly the programme I am part of, and indeed another programme I have been lucky to work with in previous years, Late at Tate, are phenomenal feats of intersectional and radical creatives coming together to work towards change. The times at which we occupy the gallery are the times when you truly see the galleries potential as a social space. When there is noise, and laughter, and experimentation - when the space is transformed by the marginalised bodies in it, to facilitate other marginalised bodies.
However, I worry this is a distraction as this diversity is not represented by the institution. Tate has only 13% of their workforce that identify as Black or Ethnic Minority. Tate has only 9% of its staff that identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Every single director is white. In payband 1 there is only 3% BAME. Band 2 has 12% and band 3 has 7%! Only 4% of the entire workforce identify as disabled! Is this how the ignorance Maria spoke of gets in? Because there is no one in the room to point it out?
Tate says, ‘We aim to become a truly inclusive organisation with a workforce and audience as diverse as the communities we serve.’ I would say having worked on the floor and seen the regular clientele who feel safe enough to shh my students and myself, and now having seen the statistics surrounding staffing, this quote is accurate in its representation of audience and community. In that, the audience and community are the white middle class.
This leads me to the turmoil I have been caught in over the last few weeks, instigated by the comments by Maria. Firstly, as a survivor who makes work (I think quite explicitly) about what it means to have survived a violent relationship, I feel personally disrespected by Maria. I also feel like there is no dignity to be found as a survivor whilst working for her, nor is there any dignity in creating work about abuse and survival under the guise of someone who considers the abuse I suffered to be my fault.
I feel stagnant in the gaps of the giant ever grinding cogs of the tate - what power do I have as an individual in this space? If the work I can do outside these concrete walls is inherently more transformative, what am I doing inside them? The sheer vastness of the building means it is undeniably easy for individuals, or even small pockets of people, to convince themselves they have nothing to do with the bigger picture. There are radical spaces being carved slowly but surely, within the learning team but also within the transformative and inspiring work done by Late at Tate. This makes it clear to me, there must be people on the inside, inside the cogs playing the long game - but there must to be the people beating on the walls and screaming for urgency.
I would like to be clear that I am resigning as a demonstration of urgency, and in direct retaliation to an institution led by someone who was completely unable to apologise for personally harmful comments both publicly and personally.
I believe strongly that what should of happened post these comments is Maria and Tate make an active decision to lift up survivors, platforming us and our work. I believe Maria should have donated time, money, and space to groups like IMKAAN and Sisters Uncut I believe the Tate must work hard to not only diversify the workplace, but Tate must acknowledge grass roots activism that falls outside of a capitalist gaze, or that is not packageable or profitable. Tate must work as intensely to support oppressed groups and grassroots activists when it is in fashion and when it is not. Tate must work hard to rip through the insidiousness of the institution to create at the very depths of it the diverse and radical space they claim on the surface. Tate must be ahead of the curve, and not rely on marginalised communities to drag it kicking and screaming into the present.
I hope, deeply in my heart, that this slow turning of the cogs has influence. I hope that the shouts from protests outside speed that up. I hope that this is the desperate rupture needed to create and facilitate radical and urgent change. I hope that in five years I can walk through the walls of the Tate and find myself humbled and inspired, and able to work with young people in the space once more. As it stands, I walk through the buildings and I see works made by perpetrators that have no signs of being removed, whole rooms of works where I feel personally disgusted and full of rage. I cannot reconcile this within myself, and so for now, even at the huge financial risk I put myself in as a working class queer woman, I must resign.
*Ana Mendieta, a cuban woman and performance artist, apparently fell to her death during an argument with Carl Andre, who was eventually acquitted from this crime. Here again, we see how an institution (the police) fundamentally let down a migrant woman in the face of an alleged perpetrator, and we see it echoed in the chambers of the Tate in their complete denial of such violence. I find myself forced into corners of what I can and cannot say.