Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, talks to Ariane Bankes about the planned revamp of the museum and 100 different ways of showing sculpture

The evening after first meeting Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, I bumped into a mutual friend who told me, only half-joking, that she could be frightening. Fair enough, I thought: to become the first woman director of one of Britain’s pre-eminent public galleries you have to frighten a few people along the way. As it happened, I hadn’t found her alarming at all at the press briefing that morning: direct, brisk, purposeful — she was, after all, embarking on a wholesale top-to-toe redesign and rehang of the gallery — but approachable. I wondered a little nervously, however, whether by the end of our forthcoming one-to-one interview I would find her very frightening indeed.

Luckily, this was not the case. When I was ushered into Dr Curtis’s high-ceilinged room in the labyrinthine former hospital that comprises the offices of Tate Britain she greeted me warmly — a slight figure with short, sharply cut hair, a soft voice and level gaze. The room was hung with works from her own collection: a huge and pleasing abstract by an artist she told me (rightly) I would never have heard of, and opposite her desk a mesmerising photo of receding lenses by Keith Wilson, her co-curator of Modern British Sculpture, opening on 22 January at the Royal Academy. Her widely welcomed appointment as director of Tate Britain brings her back to the cultural behemoth she first joined in 1988 as exhibitions officer at a newly opened Tate Liverpool; from there she moved to the Henry Moore Centre for the Study of Sculpture in Leeds, transforming it into the Henry Moore Institute and presiding over a series of exhibitions that engraved it indelibly on the cultural map.

Since last April she has brought her level gaze and remarkable focus to bear on Tate Britain, just at a point when ambitious plans to reconfigure both galleries and displays clash with government funding cuts of 15 per cent and a general tightening of the financial noose. She seems confident, however, that the £45-million upgrade will go ahead: two thirds of the funding has already been raised and the remainder ‘looks achievable from private sources’. Architects Caruso St John will restore the integrity of Sidney Smith’s fine entrance on Millbank, opening up space around the dome, creating three new staircases to link dome to basement, and renovating the south-east quadrant of galleries, while the whole collection will be reorganised into complementary chronological and in-focus displays by 2013.

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The rehang has already begun, eschewing those didactic text panels that Penelope Curtis plainly has no time for: ‘I want people to engage directly with the art, to get hooked, not to read what an interpretation team has cobbled together — if they like what they see, there are endless opportunities to find out more about it elsewhere.’

One might think she would have enough on her plate at Tate without simultaneously co-curating a major show up the road at the Royal Academy, but she is used to juggling several balls at once. How did Modern British Sculpture come about, I wondered, and why now? ‘It was really Anthony Caro’s initiative. Norman Rosenthal [former head of exhibitions] had been resistant to the idea but when he departed Caro started to lobby for a major show, and the RA set up three workshops to discuss it. I could only attend the third, and to my surprise they sprung the invitation to curate the show, in partnership with a working sculptor. Keith Wilson and I had collaborated on a show in 2003 in Leeds, so he was the obvious choice.

‘The RA has had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with sculpture; there have been only three sculptor presidents in its 250-year history — Frederick Leighton, Charles Wheeler and recently Philip King. And it virtually turned its back on sculpture at times — the Fifties and Sixties, for instance, a richly fertile era — so, even though this show doesn’t set out to be radical, it is in a sense radical for the RA.’ Does the exhibition ask questions rather than posing answers, I wonder. ‘Well, we’ve set out to make a show that is intelligent, and responsible about telling the story — but we certainly don’t duck the questions,’ she adds.

It’s clear that the story it tells has a huge range of reference, both in terms of time and place. ‘It’s taking place in London, once centre of an empire, a city with museum holdings from all over the world. People may be amazed to come to a show of modern British sculpture and find there objects dating from 2,000 BC, from Easter Island, from Peru, but we wanted to highlight the conversation sculpture has always had with a longer past, a wider world. Think of Epstein, Gaudier-Brezska, Gill, steeped in other cultures, other eras…’

Curtis herself is so steeped in the subject that her insistence on what’s important has real authority: sculpture’s commemorative role, its political engagement, its choice between figuration and abstraction, exemplified by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Does she agree with William Tucker’s remark that a sense of the figure is central to the process of sculpture? ‘I think the figure is always there, even when it’s not there,’ she affirms, citing even Caro’s groundbreaking abstractions in scrap and steel as pieces whose essence is to reflect back the presence of the viewer.

The idea is to juxtapose works thematically in ways that challenge traditional assumptions, each gallery posing its own visual argument. But it is not about process: ‘I have to be careful not to make too many shows in one,’ she says. ‘I must have curated 100 sculpture shows in my life and I’ve discovered there are 100 different ways of showing sculpture — just as there will be 100 different reactions to the way we’ve done this.’

To judge by ruffled feathers among some RAs, not all of them will be wholly positive, but she is plainly not fazed by controversy, a quality vital in the director of a gallery that hosts the Turner Prize alongside the nation’s collection of Turners. Tate Britain has been fast making up the visitor numbers it lost to Tate Modern ten years ago, and Dr Curtis’s thoughtful ambitions for its future look set to put it on an ever-more equal footing.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Art, Exhibitions, Royal academy, Sculpture, Tate britain