UK national museums are facing their biggest post-war challenge. Marred in financial concerns from loss of income, they are now beginning to look towards a post-lockdown existence and the new challenges that it will bring. The Art Newspaper spoke to Maria Balshaw, the director of the Tate, about the reopenings of its galleries.
The Art Newspaper: When will you reopen Tate Modern and Tate Britain?
Maria Balshaw: We hope to reopen early August. But we need to wait until it is safe to do so—for example, if there is an increase in coronavirus infection levels, then we would necessarily have to change this.
Will Tate or the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) decide on the reopening?
DCMS did not order us to close, nor will they order us to open. But we are working very closely with DCMS. We are also working within government guidelines, so museums can potentially reopen at Stage Three, that is at some point after 4 July.
Will other national museums reopen at the same time as Tate?
No. Each museum is in a different situation. We are coordinating our schedules and all feel it would be unwise for everyone to open on the same day, partly because we are reliant on a public transport system which won’t be working at full capacity. The reopenings will probably be from mid July until the end of August.
What proportion of your pre-closure visitors will return?
We are working from a visitor safety perspective and planning for 30% of normal visitor numbers. We have come to that from two directions. That represents the number of visitors we can safely accommodate, with two-metre social distancing. We also think that this is a reasonable estimate of likely demand. But I feel that demand might be higher, because during the closure through social media and digital content we have seen an incredible enthusiasm and love for our museums and what we show inside them.
Will you be offering timed slots on the internet?
We are looking at the options, we don’t know yet.
Will it cost more to open the museum than before, with more front-of-staff needed?
We are not planning for that. It will cost as much to open for 30% as for 100%. But filling the galleries with more staff is not very helpful when people need to keep a distance from each other. Our gallery staff will probably do different things, but adding extra people would not help.
Most of Tate’s income is self-generated. If visitor numbers fall to 30% then surely you might lose more than half of this money. How will you cope with an enormous hole in your budget?
The answer is that we will. We are looking at making savings across all of our operations. Exhibitions will be extended and spread over a much longer time scale. That not only means people will have the time to see them, but it also spreads the costs over a number of financial years. Along with the whole of the cultural sector we will be facing a really significant financial challenge. We won’t know the scale of that until we reopen, and the situation is changing on a weekly basis.
Do you hope to get more government financial support?
The government will have a one-year spending review in the autumn and we must set out our case. During lockdown there has been a renewed focus on the importance of people’s creativity. Arts and culture is vital for our social wellbeing. DCMS will be making that argument and I hope that the government will recognise it too. We have an extraordinary and highly successful museum sector and wider cultural sector. It is something that must be protected.