My new Tate membership card arrived, with an encouraging covering letter, a leaflet highlighting the cream of the forthcoming shows in 2013, and some stickers to put on my calender (which I won't use). I looked at the letter, and thought I might upgrade to Member Plus One for exhibitions. It would be nice to be able to take the Systems Administrator for coffee in the members' room at Tate Modern, after raving about it enough times, and I had a good feeling that I might find a couple of people this year who would like to come to see something with me. Tate membership is sixty pounds, if you pay by direct debit, or ninety pounds for the Plus One option. It's all very nicely graduated, as you can buy further add-ons giving you access to special viewings, but being able to swan into any exhibition on the day is enough for me.
The arithmetic of membership is straightforward. A full price ticket for a big show is generally a smidge under fifteen pounds, while small shows by relatively obscure artists come in a bit cheaper. You need to go to four to five exhibitions per annum to make it pay financially, and take a friend or rellie a couple of times a year to make the Plus One add up in purely monetary terms. But the no-book, no-queue aspect is extremely attractive, as is the view of St Paul's from the members' room at Bankside. Anyway, it's nice to be able to treat a friend, though again in purely monetary terms if I buy their ticket they will probably offer to buy me lunch.
Tate's management systems for keeping track of members are pretty sophisticated. The membership card has a bar code which the gallery attendant swipes when you go in (though the card readers don't always work) so they know where you've been. I often get home to find an e-mail from the curator waiting for me, though I don't think they wish to enter into dialogue about the merits of each exhibition. On the whole my required input seems to be to post enthusiastic reviews on the Tate's Facebook wall, which I haven't done, being a Zuckerberg refusenik.
The letter that comes with the new card gives the number to ring if you want to upgrade your membership. I rang it, and was slightly thrown off my stride to get a recorded message that told me the phone line was not open, and then a lot of other things I didn't need to know at that moment, but not when the phone line would be open. I tried again later, and after narrowing down my required option by pressing one repeatedly on my handset was invited to input my membership number. I could do that, because they'd just sent me a card. It was a let-down to get through to a human voice that asked for my membership number. I expressed my disappointment that it hadn't come up on a computer screen when I'd just put it into my phone, and the voice said Oh yes, it had just come up. I said I wanted to upgrade to Member Plus One and the voice said that would be fine, they would send me a new card. I had a vivid (though possibly unjustified) image of a young man (sure about that bit), possibly in his first job, and trying desperately hard to be hip while suffering from an amount of existential angst, and probably still living with his parents. Afterwards I thought it might have been a good idea if he'd checked what my name was, otherwise if I misdialled the number on my card I have accidentally upgraded somebody else's membership.
The Tate is an awful lot slicker than the Royal Academy. I was a Friend of that for two or three years. My mother originally bought me the subscription as a birthday present, at a point when it cost around sixty pounds, and I was shocked a couple of years later when I found out how rapidly they'd ramped the price up. It is now ninety pounds on direct debit, the same as the Tate, or one hundred by credit card payment. Admittedly the RA Friends deal always included the ability to take a guest in to exhibitions. On the other hand, the Tate has two galleries in London, and two more in the regions should you be on holiday in the area, so offers a lot more exhibitions in total through the year.
A year or two back the RA introduced a rule, driven by a change in the tax regulations concerning Gift Aid, that it had to be a 'family' guest. Trying to adjudicate such a rule sounds like a case that would divide the High Court, since what is 'family' in 2013? Your spouse, sibling or parent, obviously. Live-in partner with who you share a mortgage and cats without being married? Cousin? Sister-in-law? Second cousin? Step-sibling? Step-sibling's other biological parent who is not married to your parent? Ex-spouse with whom you have children? It is clearly ludicrous, and I was never challenged on the door to explain what my relationship was to whichever friend I was taking at the time, or indeed when I did go with either of my parents. Nonetheless the rule rankled. The RHS was affected by the same rule, and wrote to me asking whether as an existing member I would be prepared to limit myself to family guests so that they could claim Gift Aid and I replied that no, I would not, since I considered the ability to take my gardening friends into RHS gardens a valuable part of my membership. The RA simply imposed the new rule on everybody.
The deal-breaker for me was when the RA started requiring Friends to pre-book slots for the most popular exhibitions. They trilled that entry was still free to RA Friends, but that wasn't the point. It wasn't free because I (or rather my mother) had already paid them sixty pounds, rising to ninety, to get me into exhibitions. I don't want to have to commit to a particular time and day if I can avoid it. Suppose the chosen day arrives and the weather is perfect for gardening, or the trains are disrupted, or (like today) it has snowed overnight and I don't know if I would be able to get to the station, or how long it would take, or if the car park would be an ice rink? Being able to walk in off the street when you feel like it, or for half an hour to revisit your favourite pictures in an exhibition you have seen before, is a boon. Having to commit yourself to the one day in the week when it's a nice day to be out in the garden (like last week's Manet expedition) is a nuisance.
The RA does not issue cards with bar codes, or didn't at the point when I ceased being a Friend. Instead the member of staff at the door does a simple head-count of people going in on a Friend's ticket. They thus know nothing about how their supporters are using their tickets. Their lack of marketing nous was demonstrated most clearly when I agreed with my mother that she wouldn't renew the gift subscription. You would think a commercially astute organisation would have written to me at that point, hoping I had enjoyed my past subscription and inviting me to take one out on my own account, especially now they are beefing up the accommodation available to Friends (the old Friends' room was impossibly crowded if there was anything popular on. The service was very slow as well, but needed to be to give time for the existing patrons to leave so that you could get a seat). And the RA doesn't give you a gallery guide at the door when you produce your Friends card, even though you have paid them ninety pounds, whereas the Tate always does. The Tate has it, by several lengths.
Addendum I was supposed to be going into Colchester today for a haircut, but rang to cancel when I saw how much it had snowed in the night. By mid-morning the snow had melted a lot, at least where the sun shone on it, and I was afraid I had been over-cautious. I felt better at lunchtime when I checked the local papers on-line and saw the headline Snow gridlocks roads. Reading on I saw that, as I feared, Blizzards have caused chaos in Colchester. Drivers were faced with gridlock on Tuesday morning after snow fell overnight. I rather thought they would be.