Is Tate Membership Good Value for Money?

Here is something I was thinking about writing for a while.

Oh, dear god, no! It’s not the “Brexit Scorecard” piece you threatened us with, is it? Not at Christmas! Have you no pity? We’re trying to drink here!

No. It is not. I will do that one, but not right now. So let us repair to the Tate Members bar and…

Oh, dear god no! Have you seen how much they charge for a glass of…

Alright, lets sit on the swings then?

Oh, dear god no! I’ll throw up.

Enough already! Just forget about the booze for a moment. I have not posted anything in the Art category for ages. Lets talk about art.

In this article I am going to treat Tate Membership purely as a “season ticket”. Of course, that is not what it is. It is membership of one of the world’s most respected art institutions. It funds free exhibitions for everybody. The importance of this should not be minimised. Anybody can turn up at Tate Britain, Tate Modern or Tate Liverpool and find more than two thirds of the exhibition space open to everybody with no entrance charge at all. Membership also funds conservation, research, publications, new acquisitions and the Turner Prize.* There are even free activities and art materials for younger kids to keep them from getting bored.

So, yeah. This is a totally bogus way to look at it but then £120 for “Member and Guest” is a metric shitload of money so lets look at this selfishly for a moment. Is it worth it purely in terms of what we get out of it? The membership gets one named member plus any one guest into the charging exhibitions for a year. In my case, the member is my Mum and the guest is often, but not always, me. We tend to see everything in London but not much else. I pay for this but she is the member so that she can also get other guests in on other days.

There are two ways of trying to calculate the value. The first is to add up the money “saved” on entrance fees and other things but members are likely to visit exhibitions that they would never have slapped down three fivers of actual cash on. So my approach is going to be to review a year’s worth of Tate membership and ask “In hindsight, what is the most I would have paid for that?” I call that the “Subjective value”.

What Price
(2 visitors)
Comments Subjective value
(1 visitor)
Tate Britain Exhibition: Paul Nash £16.50
I never really saw why Nash was thought Britain’s leading surrealist** either before or after this. I mean, he isn’t bad but I don’t see what makes him special. £4
Tate Modern Exhibition: Robert Rauschenberg £18.50
This was interesting as Rauschenberg didn’t really fit in as a pop artist in the normal sense, so it was good to see him separate from the movement he normally gets lumped into. Also, you can’t lose with a stuffed goat. £5
Tate Britain Exhibition: David Hockney £19.50
This one was over-hyped to the point where you could hardly get in it even at those prices. It was good though. £6
Tate Modern Exhibition: The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection £16.50
Quite a lot of these pictures had been shown for free at the V&A in the recent past but there was enough here to make up a fair exhibition of the photography of the period, albeit a bit light on some of the big names you might have expected more of. £3
Tate Modern Exhibition: Wolfgang Tillmans £12.50
Tillmans seemed to be more curator than artist in this. His political points were well made but there wasn’t that much art going on in the normal sense and what there was seemed subordinate to the political message. If you are looking to make a political point then maybe charging people £12.50 to find out what it is is not a great way to reach a wide audience. £2
Tate Modern Exhibition: Giacometti £18.50
I don’t get it. This is just the “Small – Far away” joke from Father Ted, isn’t it? I just don’t see where the clever bit is meant to be. A few of his earlier works were a bit better than the “pipe-cleaner stuff” but not much. £1
Tate Britain Exhibition: Queer British Art 1861–1967 £16.50
This one worked far better as history than as art. There were some great works but there was no unifying artistic element. Instead what held it together was the historical narrative in the archive material. £4
Tate Modern Exhibition: Fahrelnissa Zeid £12.50
This was another one where I went in not knowing much about the artist and came out impressed. Also, if you think you have a lot of crap in your life, she only narrowly avoided being shot in an Iraqi coup. £5
Tate Modern Exhibition: Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power £16.50
Like the Queer British Art, this one worked best as history although there was a much more coherent aesthetic too. The archive material was as interesting as the large works. £4
Tate Britain Exhibition: Rachel Whiteread £17.00
This one was really good. Whiteread is the premier sculptor in the UK. The size of her works limited the number in the main exhibition space and the exhibition was wisely allowed to spill out into other areas where the non-paying visitors could also get a taste. I am normally suspicious of artists who have one very distinct shtick and stick to it but hers is worth it. £7
Tate Modern Exhibition: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future £13.30
This is exactly what I like about membership: The chance to see an exhibition by artists I knew nothing about and discover something unexpected. Intricate Soviet era underground conceptual art. Who knew? Certainly not the Soviet authorities, thank goodness. £6
Tate Modern Exhibition: Red Star Over Russia A revolution in visual culture 1905–55 £13.30
This was half way between an art exhibition and a history exhibition but it worked OK. Quite a lot of this had been shown before though, and for free, but these post-truth times make looking at Soviet art and propaganda strangely relevant again. £4
Tate Modern Exhibition: Modigliani £18.80
I am genuinely unable to tell to what extent Modigliani was taking the piss. He was clearly having a fine old time badly painting a mixture of nudes and portraits of his friends with their heads twisted sideways. Is this intended as caricature or not? 50p
Tate Britain Exhibition: Impressionists in London £19.70
This is the sort of blockbuster exhibition that leaves me cold. Sure, the Impressionists were an important step towards modern art but they really weren’t very good were they? There are some “big names” but it only took about 15 minutes to see all this. It is just stuff we have all seen in books and it is no better in real life. The link to London was also unconvincing. £1
Tate Etc. Magazine (Three issues) 3 x £6.95 This is a good magazine, and I do read it, but… People pay £7 for magazines in the 21st century? 3 x £3
Grand Total  £466.25  £61.50 pp

c = Concessionary price

So, based on ticket prices, the membership looks like it saves 74% but most of those exhibitions are grossly overpriced (some to an almost comical level!) rending that calculation meaningless. Certainly it is hard to imagine anybody regularly stumping up full price when they can get membership or use one of the occasional 2for1 offers available through various sources to those in the know. Full price does begin to look like it is exploiting the tourists, who all got their pounds cheaply this year thanks to Brexit.

OK. That is probably unfair. In many other countries the museums and galleries give you absolutely sod all for free and Tate, like most British galleries and museums, is giving a hell of a lot for free. These overpriced tickets are funding that for everybody. There are a lot of smaller changing exhibitions in the free areas so there is always something new to see whether you pay or not and sometimes these free exhibitions are better than the stuff you have to pay for! Also. I should not be picking on Tate. The price of major exhibitions has gone through the roof everywhere in London, as has the price of other entertainment. (I mean who goes to the cinema at those prices? Ouch!)

When I add up the prices I regard as fair value it does come out at about half of the £120 cost of “member and guest” for one person. (And I promise that I did not fiddle those figures to make it add up so perfectly!) Add in the discount in the bookshop and the fact that it isn’t only my Mum and myself using this membership (as she can take other guests on other days) then it doesn’t look too bad.

But, hey! Tate, if you read this: One more big hike in the membership fee could be the end of this for us! Don’t kill the goose that lays your golden eggs! Don’t risk filling your galleries with nothing but rich poseurs. Do what you can to keep the membership affordable for normal people and I won’t begrudge you a little extra cash in the donation box or via the shop.


 * – The Turner Prize is important because it promotes relatively unknown artists and also because it winds up the tabloid press to the point of apoplexy and hence provides one of the few opportunities us sneering liberal metropolitan elitist remainer bastards get to give those trolls a taste of their own medicine.

 ** – Britain’s actual leading surrealist was Leonora Carrington and she pissed off to Mexico.


December 29, 2017. Art, Money, Sensible.

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