Saturday, 1 February 2014

Judd Climbing at Tate

Picture: Stephanie Theodore
A righteous - and rightful - chorus has roundly condemned the family that let a child lie on a Donald Judd sculpture at Tate. But Tate must take its share of the blame. These barbarians are the creations of modern museology. For years the art establishment has been turning museums into playgrounds to pander to the perceived desires of visitors. Most major museums have signed up to the Kids in Museums manifesto, which tells museums to say "please touch". The new director of the Fitzwilliam thinks it's rude even to ask visitors not to touch works of art.

Museums fret that the socially excluded are intimidated, but this is an upper middle class family that owns a successful chain of clothes shops, who boast that their kids have been to 'all the museums and all the galleries in London and abroad'. The parents think their young alpinist was being 'anti-establishment' (which they think is self-evidently a Good Thing), but their behaviour and their reaction is attuned to the art establishment.

The most grotesque comment was when the mother asked "Does this woman want it that so no parents bring children to art galleries?", which assumes that children will only want to go to art galleries if they're allowed to be destructive. The assumption that children cannot be expected to behave is utterly contemptuous of children. But it only echoes what museums themselves have been saying for years; Tate's official reaction emphasised how much they welcome families, as if that has any relevance to the destructive behaviour of a visitor. Pandering to badly-behaved visitors elevates their sense of entitlement.

This incident occurred not long after another visitor vandalised a Rothko. A vandal causing terrible damage is different from an unsupervised child who didn't actually break anything, but the common theme is that the art was not being guarded by Tate. This is a fundamental failure of management. Grand exhibitions, successful fund drives and huge visitor numbers count for nothing if Tate cannot meet the most basic requirement of any museum, to look after its own collection. Worse, the official response has been downright dishonest. They claimed that "the situation was dealt with immediately". When an institution claims that 'a situation was dealt with', the clear implication is that they dealt with it. But they do not explain how or by whom, and the visitor who photographed the incident said that she had challenged them, but said nothing about any action by a guard at Tate. The incident was 'dealt with' only because another visitor, Stephanie Theodore, challenged them - and was roundly abused for her public-spirited action. Tate's official response was simply to reassure the public that children are very welcome, as if their greatest fear was not of damage to the artwork but of any possible impact on visitor numbers.

It is an established principle that leaders must take responsibility for corporate failures. Executives lose their jobs when their subordinates fail to perform. Cabinet ministers are held responsible for failures in their departments. Tate has the wrong priorities and is demonstrably failing in its most basic duty. Their reaction to the incident was worse than their failure to prevent it - a blasé and dishonest response that fails even to recognise the problem. Tate is rotten and its director Sir Nicholas Serota must go.

I don't mean to let the family off the hook. I don't blame the child, but her parents and her aunt and uncle behaved badly and their arrogant and entitled response is appalling. I like Oliver Basciano's suggestion on Twitter that we form a flash mob and go be anti-establishment in their upscale clothes shop. But let's picket Serota's office first.


  1. Here, here! Especially your point on the The President for Life - are you a subscriber to The Jackdaw ( If not, you should be it's almost as polemical as you!

    1. Thank you! I'm a huge fan of The Jackdaw but my subscription lapsed; I must renew. I was going to write a post about The Art Fund recently, but found that The Jackdaw had already made exactly the points I wanted to make.