A Dinghy Too Far: Tate Galleries Runs Aground in Boating Gaffe

By Knattermax888 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

April 28, 2017; New York Times

NPQ has written quite a bit about wage ratios—the number of times a front-line worker’s salary can go into the CEO’s—and the lack of attention to them by nonprofits in the United States. It’s a terrible look for a nonprofit to mimic the brazen excesses of a careless economy. This story, however, comes from the UK.

Tate Galleries, the iconic collection of British museums, including the Tate Modern and Tate Britain museums in London and two other museums in St. Ives and Liverpool, has recently exhibited a mystifying level of insensitivity in employee relations by asking rank-and-file staff, some scraping by on modest salaries or less, to contribute to purchasing a boat as a departing gift for longtime director Nicholas Serota, who assumed his role in 1988.

There’ve been no published complaints about Serota’s stewardship, but some workers thought the solicitation was a joke when management posted a note titled “Nick’s Leaving Fund” in staff rooms throughout the organization. The posting states, “We have thought long and hard about what to get, and decided to put money towards a sailing boat. Nick loves sailing, and this would be a lasting and very special reminder of the high regard which so many of us have for Nick and his contributions to Tate.” The note concludes with an invitation to “please feel free to come by and contribute.”

No specific person is claiming authorship of this solicitation, and management in response to the genteel uproar claims that staff themselves came up with this idea. The unanswered questions are, of course, what staff and what they were thinking.

Most ground-level Tate workers earn the equivalent of about $20-30,000 yearly, which does not make ends meet in pricy London. Some subcontracted laborers fare even worse, bound to zero-hours contracts that do not guarantee any minimum schedule but which bind them from seeking work elsewhere. Serota himself earns about $260,000 annually, or ten times what many employees earn.

This multiple wouldn’t raise an eyebrow across the pond, but the disparity is not lost on many stakeholders. Twitter was flooded with derisive complaints. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents workers in the Tate organization, does not believe management actually “thought long and hard” about asking the lowest-paid staff to buy a boat for the highest paid employee, stating in an email, “This shows how far Tate management are removed from the reality of the everyday lives of Tate staff and the fact that many of them can barely afford to pay their bills.”

The odd obtuseness of Tate’s internal fundraising is compounded by its grossly inopportune timing, as the group is in salary negotiations with its staff.

Pay negotiations have been tense. One trade union claimed that even after wage increases proposed by the museum group, staff pay would range from 15,707 pounds to 23,695 pounds, or about $20,230 to $30,520. By contrast, Mr. Serota made almost £200,000 in 2016–17, a Tate spokesman said.

While the loudest and most humorous detractors tend to describe this intended gift of burdensome largesse as a “yacht,” Tate itself in damaging damage control state they intended their departing prize to be a “small dinghy.” One group of cheeky employees made a paper boat and attached it to the note.

In its awkward way, Tate is echoing the growing global controversy over expanding income inequality, as much data shows that the wealthiest are reaping the lion’s share of increase from economic growth and rising labor productivity. While Tate would have been better off retreating from its position with a stiff upper lip like a king in check, its spokesman issued a boilerplate mea culpa downplaying their shallow consciousness: “Tate has reiterated to staff today that any contributions towards the gift are entirely voluntary and has apologized if the way the proposal was communicated was insensitive.”

It remains to be seen if Serota gets his seaworthy vehicle. Some wealthy members of the Tate board could easily buy him a sailing boat with very little personal sacrifice. How could the organization be so out to sea and out to lunch concerning the needs and means of their struggling workers?—Louis Altman