Tate Cruises, the venture whereby the Tate gallery provides lecturers to P & O Cruises, has, in the words of Will Gompertz, the Tate’s director of media, the dual advantage of being not only “a good opportunity to develop new audiences”, but also “financially beneficial to Tate”. The latter may well be true, but the reality of this project raises disturbing ethical issues.
The Tate Enterprises section of the Tate Report 07/08 reveals a three-year deal, which involves “Tate Guides and artist educators” giving “special talks and activities”, initially on the new superliner Ventura – launched in April 2008 by Dame Helen Mirren – and in due course expanding to twenty cruises on five ships.
Cruise liners have been described by the less charitable as floating shopping malls, a standard feature of which is an art gallery. An idea of the importance of these outlets can be gained from the figures of Park West Gallery, Michigan, which supplies artworks to eight cruise lines (though not P&O) and has 85 onboard representatives moving 150,000 artworks a year with a revenue of $150–$200 million. Class action lawsuits have been started against the company by some customers who feel they were misled as to the true values of works offered.
P&O’s Ventura has an art gallery on Panama Deck, Deck 5. Traditionally art on cruises has been sold by auctions, but Ventura has departed from this practice and merely attaches a price tag to each work. One business that has worked with P&O is the West End Gallery, whose web site displays pictures of dogs, flowers and landscapes in what can only be described as an overtly commercial style with Sam Toft and Jack Vettriano as the star players. Images available on the web of the Ventura gallery show work of this ilk – intense yellow and red sunsets, green whooshy dawns, a lonely house nesting in painterly orange fields before a black sky, quaint Lowryesque cottages trailing down to the sea, and two flowers with giant vermillion petals splayed over a cream background. It would seem to be exactly the type of work which a regular cruise lecturer on various liners had in mind when he said to me that the typical sailing collection is “gaudy, populist crap, horribly chintzy… and the most vulgar sculpture imaginable.” It has to be, after all, or it wouldn’t sell.
Basically, this is the stuff the Tate wouldn’t normally be seen dead with, yet the onboard presence of the Tate’s international and historic status lends a spurious legitimacy to this “floating showcase for the very best of British contemporary art with 7,000 different pieces from 55 artists decorating the ship.” P&O’s exuberant contribution to art criticism continues with the information that “over £1 million has been spent commissioning the finest pieces of modern art by leading British artists.” These figures sound impressive, until some simple arithmetic reveals an average cost of only £142.86 per artwork.
Perhaps the grandiose claims have also alarmed the Tate. Initially the P&O site promoting the Ventura cruises had an animation which included the words “Tate Modern” gliding across the screen. Curiously that is not now displayed, although Marco Pierre White and Noddy are still there. The “highlights” section which listed “Tate Modern Talks” immediately above (the ship’s own) “Art Gallery” has also been amended with no mention of the Art Gallery. However, the link between the Tate and the onboard art is established regardless of such embarrassed tweaks, and was touted even before the ship was built, when in 2006 The Daily Telegraph reported “The ship’s artwork will be taken from the Tate Modern”. One review site currently praises the “many leisure facilities including 5 swimming pools, kids clubs, spa, gym, circus school, scalextric, Tate Modern art gallery, casino and of course the impressive theatre.”
Poetic justice, one might feel, but hardly the goal the Tate had in mind and of no advantage either to those like myself who feel the Tate does no justice to contemporary figurative painting. The onboard Tate lecturers can hardly endorse this work as “the finest pieces of modern art by leading British artists” and will be in no position to challenge that assertion either. Their compromised silence is all that is required to maintain the assumption of approval.
The Tate’s specific brief on the cruises is an “Introduction to Modern Art”. Their well-deserved reputation precedes them, however, and has already caused alarm for some cruise regulars, one of whom commented on The Crow’s Nest forum about the onboard auctions: “We love them and they enhance our cruise experience but hope they don’t change the format and we end up with a gallery full of photos of someone’s unmade bed or the contents of their pedal bin”. This observation garnered the following response from a holidayer who had sailed on another ship: “Fortunately we did’nt (sic) see any “Tate” artwork.” The mind boggles at the prospect of the Tate’s “practical art classes”. Presumably they will not be teaching passengers how to tin their own shit à la Manzoni, and any suggestion of following Martin Creed by fixing Blue Tack to the wall is not likely to gain many converts.
How the cruise arrangement came about is a mystery. There is no record of it in the minutes of the Tate trustees: surely a project of this nature and implication should have been discussed and approved by them, and on record as such, especially as Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota, boasts, “We’re at the forefront of being as open as we possibly can.” In that case, he might like to list on the Tate web site how much it costs to hire out a curator, so I can get one along to the next Stuckist show to give a talk. If the P&O contract wasn’t brought before the board, perhaps, as he did with the débâcle of Saatchi’s supposed offer to donate his collection to the Tate, Serota thought it was sufficient if he “discussed” it with the Chairman, who in this instance would have been Paul Myners, prior to his abrupt exit to the House of Lords.
The Tate’s lust for lucre is sending it down ever more questionable routes, where its standing as a public institution is increasingly compromised by commerce. In the meantime P&O have 7,000 artworks to shift, which as The Daily Telegraph reported at the time of Ventura’s launch “could fill the Tate Modern seven times”, though it is highly unlikely, despite what the purchasing passengers might justifiably assume, that even one of Ventura’s “finest pieces of modern art by leading British artists” will ever be seen there.
Update: the Tate booklet for February/March 2009 has a full page display for “Tate talks on P&O cruises”, advertising twelve holidays in 2009 on the ships Oriana, Aurora, Artemis and Arcadia.
CHARLES THOMSON is co-founder of the Stuckists art group www.stuckism.com