Jesse Darling

The museum is a vast machine full of useless commodities that bring joy and meaning to some people as art objects. The museum is also a warm, clean indoor public environment with toilets, some retail, & a cafe or two. Here it is possible to get out of the rain, feed a baby, rest your legs, drink a coffee, use the toilet, and maybe buy a postcard. This is one of the few truly public functions of the Tate, and my experience as an artist working there was good because of it. What I mean is that precisely because of the cafe, the shop, the toilets and the central heating, a lot of people saw the work who may not normally have had access to it, and this was a pleasure and a privilege. In ordinary times these public functions also provide a significant source of revenue for the museum-machine, as well as a significant draw for the public to attend. 


The late, great anthropologist David Graeber wrote once that "[t]here seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it." Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the paradigm of the museum-machine, where some are paid over 100,000 per year while others are made redundant by arbitrary algorithm and notified by email at 11pm. To anyone who has ever worked a retail or service job it feels like an insult that the well-paid upstairs class of museum management and directorship should fail to recognise the institutional debt to its public facing workforce, whose work ordinarily feeds into the wealth of the institution - and all those high salaries & bonus checks in turn. In the art world we talk about 'the work' - the labour, the making, the thinking, and the care that goes into art works. But rarely do we talk about the workers. Somehow the art world has successfully erased most of the labour that goes into 'the work' - the conditions by which the work comes to exist in the world, or comes to be on display. 


No amount of public programming on issues of race, class, and labour — or corrective acquisition, or survey exhibition — can make up for the material fact of how the museum treats its workers. It is a grave error to imagine or behave as though the work that undergirds the public function of the museum is worthless: in fact, "the work" would be nothing without it. 


In solidarity,

Jesse Darling