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Tate Enterprises

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Tate Enterprises: an interview with Chief Executive Laura Wright

More than 7 million people visit the Tate galleries each year, but it is not the high-caliber artistic talent alone that draws them in. The array of accompanying attractions, cafés and souvenir shops help to keep visitors coming back to Tate time and again.

Running Tate’s highly successful trading activities in publishing and retail is Tate Enterprises, whose profits all go back into supporting Tate’s mission to promote knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of the arts.

At the helm of Tate Enterprises and managing a team of 170 people across the 4 Tate galleries is Chief Executive Laura Wright. “Our job is to put the customer at the heart of the business,” she says. “Every single pound spent in the shops is an indicator of people’s engagement with what we do – it is not just about the numbers. We want people to enjoy Tate and to be able to take a piece of that experience home with them.”

Wright joined the company when Tate Modern was still a building site and its shop a large hole in the ground. “I am very proud of that shop, it is not an intimidating space,” she says. For many visitors, museums and galleries can be an unfamiliar environment. To combat this, in the Tate Modern shop items such as books and prints are displayed in the same space as souvenir products, ensuring that it is a place that all visitors can enjoy.

Looking to the future is crucial to Tate Enterprises’ success. “We have to be planned enough to be a well-run business, but flexible enough to react to any sudden changes,” Wright explains. Everything from the weather to major events such as the Olympics can affect visitor numbers and, therefore, sales. In recent times, it has been the recession that has provoked the greatest change in customer habits.

Tate was fortunate that, despite the recession, the arts have remained an essential part of many people’s lives and, as spending on non-essential items fell, the galleries continued to offer a special experience to visitors and sales in its shops remained stable. Through this period, sales of expensive items and cheaper objects went up, while the middle of the market slumped. Nevertheless, Tate’s iconic status also ensured that foreign tourists continued to flock to the galleries.

“We have been really lucky through the recessions, but we have also managed it well,” says Wright. “Our job was to make sure we had the right balance of products, reaching lots of different budgets and ensuring that sense of specialness was achievable by anyone coming in.”

As in any retail environment, staff are encouraged to know the products, to keep abreast of high street trends and to engage with customers. As part of a larger organization, however, Tate Enterprises also has a responsibility to uphold the Tate brand, work in partnership with the wider business and build on Tate’s strengths and unique qualities.

Tate’s business model differs from many museums, as there is no entry fee for the permanent collection. In addition, Tate receives only 40% of its annual funding from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, so paid-for exhibitions and the galleries’ shops are crucial to Tate’s financial success.

Tate Enterprises is one of the first parts of the organization to get involved when planning an exhibition. Up to four years before a show’s opening, it begins budget planning, sources merchandise, and collates catalogues. Tate Enterprises also works closely with artists’ estates, various organizations around the world and other Tate teams to ensure it has the correct range of products available for each show. In some cases, the team will work directly with the exhibition subject. For the Damien Hirst exhibition in 2012, the artist himself was heavily involved in choosing the related products available for sale in the store.

Throughout an exhibition’s run, Wright and her team are constantly tracking stock and sales figures, measuring success by the average spend per visitor. “If you enjoy the show, you are more likely to want to take something away with you,” she says. The recent EY Exhibition: Paul Klee saw the highest ever spend per exhibition visitor, a fact Wright believes was due to correct merchandise choices, the curatorial process, and its timing in the run-up to Christmas. Careful planning and a strong knowledge of the customer are crucial to such success.

As funding models change in the arts world, Tate Enterprises must continue to build a sustainable business. By ensuring the customer remains at the heart of everything it does, Tate Enterprises looks set to continue as a healthy and dynamic champion of Tate.