Levels of Exclusion: What floor are you on?
From Katarina Hill – Intern for Politics and International Relations.
I tend to forget that most art galleries offer free entry. If I am going to a museum or gallery my first thought, being a student, is usually along the lines of ‘how much is that going to cost?’, but then I remember it is free and open to all – in theory. While interviewing the visitors at the Tate Exchange space at the Tate Modern the week before last, one observation made by many was the notion that yes, galleries are open to everyone, if you have the money. While most galleries in the UK are free to enter, if you want to see certain exhibitions, you may find yourself having to pay. If you are a student or above the age of 60, this price is probably quite feasible, but if two working parents want to take their three teenagers out for a day of cultural exploration (a suggestion that would probably be met with the obligatory hormonal groan), suddenly you could be looking at spending a pretty penny. Of course, there are still plenty of exhibitions and engaging art that you can visit for free, such as the Tate Exchange. I was talking to one of the young artists behind the work exhibited at the Tate Exchange about the exclusivity of galleries. On asking her if she thought galleries are open to everyone, she answered that “it depends what floor you are on”. This answer has played on my mind ever since, and for the remainder of my time at the Tate Modern, it made me look at the space in a different way.
Outside the Tate Modern there were numerous posters advertising the current exhibitions including one on Picasso’s 1932 works, something that seemed very typical for any gallery. But step inside the Turbine Hall, and you would never know the art of one of most adored artists of all time, was located somewhere in the building. The massive hall is essentially just a big grey concrete box, and although it is at times used for art installations, it is currently empty; making for some serious echoes as you walk across the floor (in my case while wearing flip flops which were embarrassingly loud). Entering the Tate from any side comes with a mandatory bag check by security. Even though the security staff were all very lovely, walking up to the building every morning, always triggered that sense of panic. You know the kind of panic I am talking about. It is the same one you get when you are driving and you see a police car; you have done nothing wrong, but you still think you will get arrested. Opposite the Turbine Hall is the Blavatnik Building, named after a member of one of London’s greatest treasures: the Russian oligarchs (let’s face it, we need them to keep the diamond business alive since we millennials don’t buy any). Apart from a café that makes a rather satisfying cup of coffee, the Blavatnik Building does not seem like much at first glance. Jump in the lift up to level 3 however, we suddenly see a much more gallery-esque setting where the Picasso exhibition, which is £22 per adult or free if you are a member, is currently taking place. I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition one morning, and with the concept of levels of exclusion linked to different floors (see what I did there?) in the back of my mind, I started to notice the differences between this gallery environment and that of the Tate Exchange environment on level 5. After spending a few days surrounded by some rather confrontational art and performances, loud toddlers running around in fairy wings and feather boas, and dance music playing non-stop, the quiet and somewhat serious setting of the Picasso exhibition felt like quite an extreme change. I almost felt as if I was in a library, and had to be quiet as a mouse. I kept thinking the more senior visitors were looking at me with the kind of judgement and resentment often reserved for my ‘snowflake’ generation (in my defence, Generation Z are much worse than we are). And although the stares were most likely something I imagined – at least I hope they were – it made me question whether I really ‘belonged’ there. Am I looking at the art the right way? Will I be in trouble for photographing the art with my smartphone (or iPod, as my wonderful grandmother calls anything remotely electronic)? Should I maybe have worn kitten heels rather than flip flops? So many concerns, so little time.
What I noticed the most with my new perspective, was the difference between visitors at the Picasso exhibition and the Tate Exchange Space. The Picasso exhibition sported many gallery goers of a more serious and snobbish nature; the occasional whiff of Chanel No. 5 here, a duck egg or blush coloured twin set there (yes, I am stereotyping – just go with it). All of them with very thoughtful and profound expressions on their faces. The Tate Exchange visitors were of a much more casual demeanour and dress, and quite a bit louder too. Exiting the level 3 gift shop, purchasing a fridge magnet for my stepdad’s collection, and returning to our glittery, musical, feather boa wrapped room on level 5, I almost felt as though I had been through quite a culture shock. In all my apparent middle classness I never really noticed whether gallery spaces were particularly open to all or not; but being told “it depends what floor you are on” suddenly shattered those rose-tinted glasses of mine. Although I really only spent time on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th floor of the Tate Modern, I started to see some truth in those words. The Tate Exchange space on the 5th floor also seemed like such a free and welcoming space to those of all shapes and sizes, whereas the Picasso exhibition the 3rd floor seemed so much more restricted and monotonous regarding the types of visitors. Oddly enough, it seems that as far as the Tate Modern is concerned, the exclusivity of gallery spaces becomes more relaxed the further up you go. Perhaps a metaphor for the lower classes having to work harder (or climb more stairs) to earn the benefits?