It’s been a bad few weeks at Tate. First, their response to the allegations of harassment and inappropriate behaviour recently made against Anthony d’Offay, one of the gallery’s biggest donors, was seen as indecisive and insufficiently critical. (D’Offay has denied any wrongdoing, saying: “I am appalled these allegations are being levelled against me and I categorically deny the claims being made.”)
Now, further gaffes – some related to d’Offay, others not – have led to a flurry of ill-feeling directed toward the museum, particularly on social media. There's no question that this discontent is rooted in serious concerns, but I am worried by the personal turn that the accusations have taken against Tate director Maria Balshaw.
When she stepped into the role previously occupied by Sir Nicholas Serota last June, Balshaw was seen as harbinger of a more egalitarian future within a field still dominated by white men, both in its artistic pantheon and its administration. We often say that women should no longer need to behave like men to succeed: Balshaw seemed like a positive figurehead.
From the start, her public demeanour has been non-corporate. For one, her brightly coloured, quirky dress is unconventional for the director of a major public institution. She also tends to be unguarded in her speech, talking openly about her own family background and the women who have inspired her.
It seems, though, that in doing so, Balshaw has become vulnerable to attack on a personal as well as a professional level, subjected to alarming and even bullying commentary on social media.
On Tuesday, Liv Wynter, artist in residence at Tate’s London museums stepped down “with great sadness” mid-way through her tenure. Alongside criticism of the lack of diversity among Tate staff, Wynter explicitly located her resignation as a response to two sets of remarks made by Balshaw.
The first remarks appeared in an interview in response to the accusations against d’Offay, the second, during an event at Tate. Both generated heat on social media: Wynter was by no means alone in her disquiet and upset.
Shortly after the allegations against d’Offay became public knowledge, Balshaw discussed the issue of sexual harassment in an interview, in which she was quoted as saying: “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.”
Following strong objections and a social media campaign, Balshaw apologised via Instagram: “I am sorry if this has been misunderstood. It is absolutely not my intention to say that women are in any way to blame. To be clear, it is the perpetrators who are responsible for their behaviour and not the women who are subjected to it.”
Then, at an Art Fund event the following week, the Tate director discussed the role recent acquisitions might play in connecting museums “to broad audiences.”
Among them Balshaw singled out the 2014 work Ashes by Turner-prize winning artist and film director Steve McQueen. After describing the work’s themes (“a telling commentary on issues about belonging and self-worth for young, black men”) she mentioned how delighted she had been “to receive a photograph sent by the curator at The Whitworth of a group of young men sitting in the room where Ashes was being shown, with their fried chicken lunch, talking about the piece as they were watching it.”
Balshaw’s comment was initially misrepresented in a social media post that suggested she had identified the group as “young black men,” provoking a horrified outcry. Even once the error was corrected, the question remained as to why fried chicken – long associated with racist stereotypes – was specified in the anecdote.
Citing both incidents in her resignation letter, Wynter explained: “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.”
Wynter hoped that in making her resignation and the reasons behind it public, she might accelerate change within the institution.
Wynter is a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault: a status alluded to in her art. Whatever context they were originally made in, Balshaw’s remarks, as reported, and Wynter’s feeling that Tate’s director failed to make adequate apology were evidently painful to her. It is sad she felt the need to resign as a result.
In an interview last June, I asked Balshaw about the lack of diversity among cultural workers in British museums. Describing schemes she had implemented in her former role as director of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester Balshaw was engaged and knowledgeable. I felt, and continue to feel, that she is committed to root and branch change.
Despite good intentions, there have been other missteps. Tate dramatically underestimated the audience that would gather for an event with author Reni Eddo-Lodge last November, and caused upset in their mishandling. Writing on Twitter, photographer and director Mahaneela Choudhury-Reid eloquently outlined the situation as it unfolded, concluding: “The situation tonight at Tate with Reni couldn’t make it any clearer that art institutions are out of touch with a young, POC [people of colour] audience.”
At a time when social media so quickly turns a kicked pebble into a landslide, Tate and Balshaw are certainly guilty of handling the fallout from these incidents very poorly. Their response has been read as sluggish and partial, failing to acknowledge the gravity the comments would be afforded, or their potential to hurt.
While acknowledging the upset and hurt that Balshaw’s comments may have caused, we should not overlook their context. While she may have spoken clumsily in her celebration of Steve McQueen’s Ashes, her comment about young men eating lunch was an appreciation of an audience engaging with a work of art. It may have been Balshaw messing up in the hotseat of an interview, but it is not she who faces allegations of harassment and inappropriate behaviour.
It can be easy to pass the buck in an institution as large as Tate, to shelter within bureaucracy rather than taking responsibility for change. Balshaw has positioned herself as the human face of Tate. I feel she is taking the flack as a result: and sure, maybe that’s her role as director.
However, if art institutions are to continue to transform, to engage with new audiences, to redress art historical bias, to openly discuss issues of abuse, racism, ableism and sexism, I feel we need figures like Balshaw: human, with all the potential for error that implies.
A positive coda: Following her criticism of the museum, Choudhury-Reid was contacted by Tate, interested in improving the museums’ relationship with young people of colour. Earlier this week, she spoke at their International Women’s Day event. I hope Tate continues to engage with and listen to its critics, Wynter among them.