‘This is about survival’: can the Tate galleries survive in an era of mass Covid fear?

On the longer leash of Tier 2, Liverpool’s galleries are open again. But with revenue at all-time lows, they need the public back – and fast

Tate Liverpool, like all its family, has seen visitor numbers plummet
Tate Liverpool, like all its family, has seen visitor numbers plummet Credit: Rachel Ryan/Tate

There are very few winners in the Government’s draconian new tier system, which has forced closures of arts venues in the new Tier 3 and placed capacity caps on those in Tiers 1 and 2. But Helen Legg, director of Tate Liverpool, knows it could have been much worse for them.

Post-lockdown, Liverpool has moved down into Tier 2. That change is partly due to the city being subject to the toughest restrictions in early autumn, and also to its mass-testing pilot, which has seen 300,000 people – including those without symptoms – given Covid tests.

Still, the lower tier status wasn’t guaranteed, points out Legg. “It’s a huge relief. We really weren’t sure. Liverpool had been struggling so much before the second lockdown.”

At least, she notes, they were no stranger to restrictions. “Because we’d done all this before at Tate, we had all the plans in place for social distancing, one-way systems, masks.”

However, it’s a lot quieter in the gallery than normal, with Legg estimating only about one to two per cent of their normal international visitors in attendance, and a big loss of national visitors too. “People might not realise that Liverpool is usually a real tourist centre.”

The plus side is that “it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those who are coming. There’s no queueing to see works, and they can spend as much time in front of them as they want.”

The Government’s cap on visitor numbers – another aspect of these tougher new tiers – isn’t a big factor, says Legg. “People are more reluctant to visit than previously, so we don’t have the problem of too many people wanting to get in. I think the only Tate that’s had that issue is St Ives, because everyone took a staycation there.”

Helen Legg, director of Tate Liverpool Credit: Tate/Roger Sinek

That means Liverpool Tate is now thinking more locally. “We’ve had time to reconnect with our community and consider their needs.” But the drop in numbers has, inevitably, had a major financial impact. “Across the Tate group, we’re looking at 20 per cent of our regular visitors this year. It’s normally eight million. Now, it’s one million. That’s a drop of about £56 million in self-generated income overall.”

It’s not just tickets, but the enormous loss of income from shops, cafés and other commercial activities. That led to the company making 313 redundancies earlier this year, despite a £7 million top-up from the Government.

The trouble is that it’s a long-term crisis, says Legg. “We won’t see a bounceback in our figures in the next 12 months, maybe even the next two years. This is about survival.”

They have been making efforts with online activities, some ticketed or requesting donations. “The public have been really generous. There’s lots of online shopping too. But it’s a big shortfall.”

What will be sacrificed? “We’re reducing the number of exhibitions. Those big shows don’t work right now – instead, it’s what the local population wants. And going back to what the Tate sets out to do: help people enjoy art.”

On offer is the Don McCullin photography exhibition, which opened in September, closed for lockdown, and is now reopening – with an extended run until May 2021. 

Team Time Storytelling, Alder Hey Children's Hospital Emergency Department, Covid Pandemic (2020) by Aliza Nisenbaum Credit: Jeff McLane/Aliza Nisenbaum/Anton Kern Gallery, NY

There’s also Aliza Nizenbaum’s portraits of Merseyside’s NHS key workers, including Sage member Professor Calum Semple, doctors, students nurses, and the porter who takes bodies to the morgue.

“They have such poignant stories to tell – of resilience, trauma, and just buckling down,” says Legg. “It felt like an important gesture, to pay tribute to what’s happened and record their experiences.”

Next year sees the Liverpool Biennial and Lucian Freud exhibition. Legg hopes they can both be big draws. “Depending on what happens with the vaccine, we might be able to have larger groups by that point.”

She’s very proud of the city’s mass-testing programme. “There’s a testing centre in central Liverpool, about 10 minutes from the gallery. From tomorrow, people can do a test, get their results, and then wander over to Tate knowing they’re safe.” 

If people can easily get a negative test, in large numbers, “that could see the proper return of galleries, museums, theatre, football.”

Legg also speaks highly of the Mayor and city council’s working relationships with cultural institutions. “We’re sent a weekly update with figures on new infections and deaths. Getting up-to-date information means we can do some planning.”

Visitors to Tate galleries are now given a list of Covid protocols to follow Credit: Tate/Roger Sinek

But she’s all too aware that they could go up a tier whenever the Government revisits the issue. “I really hope people are sensible here. But we know the doors might close again at short notice.”

Does she think it’s right that restrictions are being placed on galleries when there’s no evidence of transmission risk? Legg sidesteps criticising the Government directly, but says it would be good to “look at those restrictions in more detail. No one wants to make the situation worse. But equally, there are real effects on people of not being able to get out and connect with arts and culture.”

What about putting the onus on galleries to enforce rules like people only visiting in their household or support bubbles? “You do have to book online in advance and give your address, so we can largely see what’s happening. We’re doing all we can, within reason.”

For now, she’s relishing the return of visitors. “It’s very forlorn seeing the gallery with no lights on, works covered up, no people. That’s not what a gallery’s meant to be.” 

With Christmas lights up on the Royal Albert Dock, “it’s starting to feel festive.” At the very least, she notes wryly, “people want to revel in the fact that this year is nearly over.”