Working at Tate

Lindsey Fryer discusses her work as Head of Learning at Tate Liverpool.

  • Name: Lindsey Fryer
  • Current position: Head of Learning, Tate Liverpool
  • Organisation: Tate
  • Size of workforce: 800 employees across all 4 Tate galleries; over 100,000 members
  • Date of interview: May 2020
Headshot of Lindsey Fryer.

Tell us about your organisation and role 

The national collection of art works is Tate’s core business. There are central services and functions of collection care, fundraising, finance and HR. These core functions are headquartered in London but every team has its counterpart in each of the Tate galleries. 

All Tate sites work together to share best practice, strategies and resources whilst remaining sensitive to their locality. Although we are a national institution, we are all local to somewhere, and it’s really important that locality and the sensitivities around that actually inform what we do and what we show and how we approach creating relevant public programmes. 

In my role as Head of Learning, the team I lead revolves around public engagement, with a focus on lifelong learning. We work with a range of community partners, homeless agencies, hospitals as well as refugee organisations. We work with early years settings, schools and universities. We run three collectives: family, community and young people. These collectives seek to broaden access, help shape Tate’s programmes and guide Tate’s community engagement. 

Do you need a very specific galleries background to be able to work in Tate Liverpool?

In general no, you don’t. That’s only true for a few specific jobs such as curator roles. In terms of recruitment, we have essentials and desirables – you might have a number of years of experience but not necessarily the formal qualification, and that experience is valued at Tate. 

In the Learning team, for example, we look for people with experience of collaborative ways of working, not necessarily a teaching qualification as such. Our approach is very learner led: in the Learning team it’s about knowledge exchange rather than just knowledge transfer; we encourage a dialogical approach to constructing meaning from a person’s own perspective. Some of this includes making art, some doesn’t. 

What are some of the challenges you face as an organisation? 

One of our challenges is diversity: of workforce, audience, displays, communications. A major problem with art galleries, especially modern and contemporary art, is that art can be considered to be inaccessible. 

Why would you go to an art gallery? People are much more comfortable going to museums, possibly because there has been a tradition of schools visiting museums, but not necessarily art galleries. But you can teach the whole curriculum through looking at art. 

We need people who can address that challenge, through partnership development, an audience-led approach and audience appropriate communication skills, both oral and written. 

Like many organisations, change management is a constant need and can be challenging. Tate has a new Director, who has implemented a new set of values around openness, being kind, rigorous, and bold. This is a huge shift in culture but the emphasis on being audience-focused is filtering through.

What transferable skills and mindsets are vital to Tate’s continued success? 

Partnership Development 

A key skill needed within my team and indeed across the whole of Tate, is partnership development. Locally, regionally and nationally each team within Tate galleries develops its own specific partnerships related to its programme and audience priorities. We couldn’t do anything without partnerships, at any level. 

Team Work 

We need people who can work as part of a team: sometimes people can be very focussed on their own work or their own specific focus and don’t always appreciate that there is a team around them. 

More than teamwork, it’s a collaborative approach: understanding that you’re not the person with everything to say and ensuring you are encouraging and valuing everyone’s contribution and leading or working within a team in an inclusive way. For me, being a team player means respecting others’ points of view and making time to understand all the other different aspects of the organisation. 

We need people with an understanding that you might have the best research, and you might have the best exhibition but that it relies on a collaborative approach, not just to make it happen but also to make it relevant to our audiences. 

Creativity 

Creative thinking as a process and a practice and being able to embed this into learning is important. As a process in Tate, creative thinking is very akin to scientific practice. You create a hypothesis and then test it out. 

You’re hypothesising, you are putting something in place, you’re testing it, you’re taking calculated risks, but also you have the ability to be surprised. Creativity can be a weasel word, as it’s used in so many difference contexts and so unpicking what that means in different scenarios is important. 

Audience-focus 

We are an audience-focussed institution. It’s not about what you know, it’s about what the audience needs to know and how they need to know it. For example, there is no point writing an exhibition introduction that is so esoteric no one but the curator can understand it – in order to ensure accessibility, the language we are now using on the Tate website and any messaging has to have a reading age of 12. 

Other important skills include: project management (including time management, prioritisation and delivering outputs on time and within budget); scenario planning/horizon scanning (thinking: if this happens, then what?). And in terms of personal qualities empathy, professionalism and respect for others is very important. 

Could you talk us through your recruitment process? 

We do everything via the website: it’s an online application, which is open to all, as Tate is for all. We don’t look for postdocs specifically but they are welcome to apply. 

There is no CV or covering letter- you complete an application along with a supporting statement outlining how you will carry out the job description and meet the essential and desirable criteria of the person specification. A panel will shortlist all applications on this basis, and the application is anonymous until you’ve been selected and you are about to interview. 

It’s important to say that our roles can attract hundreds of applications. You are operating in a global arena that is very competitive, so you need to stand out. 

What makes an application stand out to you?

You need to do your research before you apply for anything – it’ll get picked up if you don’t! Get to know the organisation, get to know everything you can about it, go and meet people before you apply. Show that you know the organisation. Learn everything you can about that business before you apply, that gives you the edge. 

There will be certain sections in that job description that you should be writing to, don’t just blanket put down everything you’ve ever done without relating it to the job, don’t just list, ‘I’ve done this, I’ve done this, I’ve done this’. Instead, try writing ‘my experience and knowledge can help the organisation to…’, ‘my worth to you is…’ ‘I can be flexible and adaptable because I…’. 

For a supporting statement, don’t write more than two pages. Be concise – but not too concise – you need to link the job role to your experience. 

What we are looking for is ‘can this person do it? and ‘will this person do it?’ The ‘can they do it?’ is about, does this person have enough knowledge and experience and enough about them. The ‘will they do it?’ is do they have enough of those other skills, those transferrable skills, to do it, are they willing to learn new things?

How can an applicant do well in an interview?  

Being well-prepared and well-presented (not necessarily suited and booted but you are going to an interview). 

You should be attentive, pleasant, open, and consider questions carefully rather than just say the first thing that comes into your head. If you don’t understand a question, ask for clarification, or ask to take a little bit of time to think about your answer. 

Don’t talk too much, just talk enough! Read body language – if you are talking too much, then you’ll probably be able to judge that. You will be told at the start of the interview ‘you will be asked about nine questions it will take x amount of time’, so you need to be aware of that. If you are rambling on you’ll be cut off. 

Be truthful and honest: if you mention anybody, anything, or any organisation, we all speak to one another – it’s quite a small sector and everyone knows each other! Probing questions will be asked in the interview about the details of what role you played for example, so don’t be tempted to say you played a leading role in a project when actually you were only a peripheral member of the team. 

During interviews if we are not getting the responses we need, we’ll ask questions to prompt, such as ‘and what did you do in that scenario?’. 

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have any questions at the end, but if you do this is often where people trip up. It can make it clear that they’ve not done their research. Things that raise alarm bells are asking if you would get the chance to work at Tate Modern (problematic if you’ve applied to work at Tate Liverpool), or asking about career progression before you’ve even got this job. 

Asking questions about other jobs in the organisation doesn’t give a good impression. Asking questions that you could have (should have!) found the answers to on the website, for example, highlights a lack of preparation and looks bad. 

Good questions would be what you might not be able to find out from doing research from outside of the organisation, something like ‘how does your team work with other teams within the organisation?’ 

What are the most common mistakes you see in the application process?   

Lack of concision: we see people writing pages and pages of dense description, when we might be reading 200 applications! You need to think about who’s reading it, what those people are looking for, being concise. 

What I would say is that people often do not read the job description properly. Don’t apply for every job at every level at an organisation: you may be lucky enough to be called for an interview but you look unfocussed, and that you are just looking for a way in to the organisation. 

You need to have given real thought to this particular role. If you are applying for a role you aren’t actually interested in and just want it as a way into Tate this will be brought out during the interview. It will become clear that it isn’t what you are passionate about, have knowledge and experience about or want to do. It will be clear that you are unlikely to do that role well, even if offered it, as you have an eye on something else. 

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