What is art? This perpetual proposition often creates an echo chamber of clashing opinion.
But for me, art is feeling. Like being stood in one of the most iconic and impressive buildings in London, contemplating a creation that renders everything outside that moment mute.
It’s these instances that bring such cultural value to national institutions like Tate. Without these buildings and the space they provide for art to thrive, people would be less able to enrich their day beyond its usual routine. But these striking buildings, at both Tate Modern on Southbank and Tate Britain at Miilbank, offer much more than artistic space to the public, as I discovered upon meeting Joanna Bracey, who heads up the operations of Tate Entertaining.
Walking around the original Boiler House at Tate Modern, which now links to the Blavatnik Building that opened in June last year, it’s clear to see that both structures have plenty of spaces already dedicated to eating and drinking – providing fuel for visitors to the galleries from bars, restaurants, kiosks, members’ areas and more.
What surprised me, though, was finding out that on top of the thousands of people coming through the doors regularly every day, there are dedicated teams planning and hosting up to 30 events in one week at Tate Modern and Tate Britain – there could be five events in just one evening.
State of the art
Tate Entertaining and Tate Catering are subsidiaries of Tate and work collaboratively to create a whole host of diverse private and corporate events every week – as well as providing daily food and beverage services for gallery visits. All profits generated from Tate Catering and Entertaining are pumped directly back into delivering art to the public at Tate’s sites in London, Liverpool and St Ives.
“We’re not here to make money for ourselves,” states Bracey. “But for the gallery and to serve the arts.”
Here, art and entertaining are inextricably linked, housed together in the sweeping stature of bricks and mortar. And the elements of every event come together from the logistics and staffing side (which Bracey oversees), the chefs and creative planners. Each event is unique and there’s rarely an opportunity to reuse a blueprint from similar occasions.
“This job is logistically demanding and the reason we work so well in these buildings is because of our knowledge of them,” Bracey continues. “They are challenging spaces. But they are incredible: just look at the architecture and that’s even before you step inside a gallery. Tate is filled with so many talented people, from the gallery’s event team, who we work alongside every day, to the curators and art guides.”
It can be arranged that these Tate art experts give guests a tour of certain collections, introduce the latest exhibitions or given a specially written address.
The art theme can merge into the menus, too, by working with the client and the chosen space.
“In the past we have had themed menus around artists’ exhibitions, as well as individual clients’ briefs,” explains Andrew Horsman, head chef at Tate Entertaining. “A memorable menu we have worked on in the past was for the BMW Live Exhibition at Tate Modern. The brief was to create vegan, environmentally friendly, foraged canapés, bowl food and drinks – using ingredients like coffee-grown mushrooms, sea purslane and cherry blossom syrup.
“We take seasonality very seriously at Tate Entertaining and spend time observing current food trends while keeping in mind Tate Entertaining’s promise to provide fresh British produce in all of our menus.”
The diversity of each event keeps the Entertaining and Catering teams on their toes. From fashion shows and awards dinners to private parties and product launches – the front-of-house staff need to remain calm in the face of the unexpected.
“We once served a hugely intricate dinner for 250 guests, and the kitchen was on the floor above,” recalls Bracey. “The musical entertainment was due to start after main course, but just as our first service team walked down the stairs the most fabulous Mariachi band decided to play. Everybody stood up and started dancing everywhere; nobody was in their seats! It’s moments like that we all look at each other for a second and then just put a big smile on our faces and make it work – we helped our staff around the dancing and dinner was served.”
Set the bar high
Marking the opening of the Blavatnik building in June 2016 was a triumph for the Entertaining team, who were catering for a prestigious dinner before the whole building opened for an official launch party for 4,000 people.
“We have had film premieres confirm with only two weeks’ notice,” Bracey adds. “So when you consider all of the planning and staffing required, including VIP hosts and waiters who need to provide exceptional service, what we can put together quickly makes us really proud. Other events have long lead times and we often have returning clients, which means months of planning. I have one returning event in the autumn where 80% of the staff will be the same as the previous year and they were confirmed months in advance.”
The teams are proud of their staff retention levels and even offer in-house courses for those looking to expand their skillset.
“Tate Entertaining has its own training academy,” says Bracey. “But it’s not only for all of our staff, we offer it out to anyone who works for Tate Catering, too. So if someone wants to pick up extra hours, is interested in working in events, wants general experience, or just would like to work at a celebrity-filled movie premiere – we want to capture all of that talent.”
Tate Entertaining has about 12 people who work full time, with other staffing brought in as events dictate.
“We were one of the early adopters of a new app platform that’s not a traditional staffing agency,” explains Bracey. “We pay all our own staff London Living Wage, so this allows us to choose to pay agency staff as close to this as possible and just pay a percentage on top. We find fair pay leads to a strong team and this translates to a great service for our guests. There are many agency staff who say they only want to work for us, which is such a compliment.”
Bracey recognises that investment in staff is more than just a wage slip and is proud that Tate is able to support its team, understanding the time off needed to pursue other paid passions, often in the arts and food and drink.
Rise to the challenge
With each week bringing with it a new set of tasks to ensure the highest quality of hospitality for every event, what’s the most challenging aspects about entertaining and catering at the Tate Modern and Tate Britain galleries?
“Every space and every event has its own personality,” says Bracey. “You may regularly deliver daytime events in a certain space, so you build up service plans. These can be adapted for each client, but there’s never a time we sit down and think ‘this week is easy’ because every client is different; every opening and artist is different, too. It’s never a copy and paste job for us.”
The number of events operating within certain spaces simultaneously can also pose a problem.
“We can run many events on the same evening,” she adds. “But we will never push it to the point where we can’t deliver, and I have some amazing colleagues from Tate Catering who we bring in to help, which ensures we never drop the quality of our food, drinks or service.”
So what are the most important things to remember when bringing all the elements together to create a seamless experience for guests?
“Communication between the event planners, operations managers and the gallery is vital,” states Hugh Knowlman, event planner at Tate Entertaining. “As we operate in such a unique building, housing our nation’s art collection, it is important to understand the procedures put in place to protect the artwork. We work hard to manage what this means for service, and what we can and cannot provide. From acrobats and ballet troupes to edible forests and immersive dining experiences, the possibilities for an event with us are endless – but no glitter cannons or indoor fireworks, I’m afraid!”
With a number of rules the teams have to follow to preserve the building, a strong relationship between the three parties is the only way everyone can deliver high-end, engaging events at Tate.
“Tate Entertaining is an integral part of Tate Catering and one that is growing,” explains Hamish Anderson, CEO of Tate Catering. “Working within a dynamic cultural institution brings expectation. We have an outstanding, creative team who are taking the business to a new level delivering unique events that befit the unique surroundings they are held in.”
There aren’t many places in the UK that can boast some of the most prestigious collections of artwork, awe-inspiring architecture and space to think away from the chaos of city life while also catering for the record numbers of daily gallery explorers.
The joint work undertaken by the Tate Catering and Tate Entertaining teams is a shining emblem of a leisure venue’s multifaceted capability to provide diverse hospitality to strict briefs.
Add to this the exclusive award-winning cellar wines, bespoke alcohol collaborations and sustainably sourced house-roasted coffee and there’s a menu for prolonged success – the positive effects of which will result in profits that go directly back to the art that feeds an ever-growing cultural appetite.
BETTER OFF BESPOKE
If hosting an event in a gallery wasn’t enough of a USP, Tate can also provide some exclusive beverages to impress guests and also serve daily customers.
“Tate’s home-roasted coffee is something we are very proud of,” explains Andrew Horsman, head chef at Tate Entertaining. “Roasted by Thomas Haigh in a WWII Nissen hut on site at Tate Britain, all our coffee is ethically sourced, and by using direct trade we can pay farmers at least 50% more than the Fairtrade minimum. We also run the Tate Coffee
Gender Equality Project, with 50% of our single-origin coffee sourced from female producers.”
This means that for every espresso martini served, latte brewed and
coffee dessert created, each bean has been sourced responsibly and roasted within walking distance.
“We also have a multi-award-winning cellar at Tate Britain that’s attached to the Rex Whistler Restaurant,” adds Joanna Bracey, head of operations at Tate Entertaining. “This allows us to provide simply outstanding wines to our clients. We offer tastings, food and wine pairings and Hamish Anderson [who was sommelier and wine buyer at Tate for 18 years before being recently appointed CEO of Tate Catering] can personally suggest rarer wines for smaller events if the budget allows for something extra-special.”
Collaborations between breweries and spirits producers around London have also resulted in bespoke beer and Tate Gin, but these products can also be seasonal and themed around upcoming exhibitions at clients’ request.