A museum fighting to keep wages down wants its employees to buy its director a yacht

Tate director Nicholas Serota: Still ashore.
Tate director Nicholas Serota: Still ashore.
Image: Reuters/Luke macGregor
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No one takes a job at an art museum thinking they’re going to get rich. They probably didn’t think the museum would rub their noses in it, either.

In an epic display of tone-deaf corporate communications, employees of the UK’s four Tate museums are being asked to donate money to help buy their departing director a sailboat.

The request comes as Tate is negotiating with its employees’ unions over pay and outsourcing. Some workers are paid less than a living wage, while others are on zero-hours contracts, which means they aren’t guaranteed work but can’t accept other jobs.

The museum, scrambling to contain the damage, explained the vessel for retiring director Nicholas Serota would be a “small dinghy” and stressed all donations were voluntary. Further, “Tate has invested considerably in raising salaries over the past three years,” the museum said in a statement to the Guardian. An email to Tate from Quartz was not immediately returned.

Tate didn’t say how much money it wants to raise to buy the boat, but it’s probably a gift that could be made by its trustees, without asking its rank-and-file employees for help. They include Lord John Browne, former CEO of BP; James Timpson, CEO of the Timpson retail chain; and Jayne-Anne Gahdia, CEO of Virgin Money.

Tate isn’t the first organization whose management appears out of touch with its employees and their working conditions. Notable examples include Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, who spent $1.2 million renovating his office suite, including $35,000 on a toilet, in 2008, as the investment bank was cutting thousands of jobs; and BP CEO Tony Hayward, who went to a yacht race in the aftermath of the Deep Water horizon oil-rig disaster that cost 11 lives.

Fairly or not, there’s even more scrutiny on leaders of charitable organizations like Tate, which depend on taxpayers and benefactors for support. Under director Serota, who took over in 1988, Tate has grown significantly, opening the hugely popular Tate Modern in 2000, as well as a regional branch in St. Ives. He’s been paid well for his efforts: he reportedly earned close to £200,000 ($258,000) in 2016.  That may not be the pay of a corporate CEO, but certainly enough to afford a comfortable retirement—even one with a sailing boat—without asking employees to chip in.