For a hundred years or so, the director of the Tate Gallery has normally been a major figure in the art world. Sir Norman Reid, director in a dynamic period between 1964 and 1979, increased the Tate’s exhibition space and acquired, for example, an important group of paintings by Mark Rothko. Sir Alan Bowness (1980–8) made many significant additions to the collection. He helped father both Tate Liverpool (a precursor of Tate St Ives) and the Clore Gallery at Millbank. He also initiated the Turner Prize.
A comparatively minor figure was the bibulous bohemian J.B. Manson, theoretically responsible between 1930 and 1938. According to his immediate successor, Sir John Rothenstein (1938–64), Manson felt the need to augment his meagre salary by dealing from the Tate’s basement in pictures known to the staff as ‘Director’s stock’. Autres temps, autres moeurs.
The career of Sir Nicholas Serota, director since 1988, provides a striking contrast to the career of this particular predecessor. Nobody could imagine Sir Nicholas having the remotest inclination, let alone the time, to deal from the basement or anywhere else. The Serota aura, though by no means lacking in kindliness and charm, is that of a man free of self-indulgence to the point of austerity. The Serota era continues to be remarkable.
He is no stranger to controversy, however. Ancient and modern Tate scandals, including the recent Chris Ofili affair in which the trustees bought paintings by one of their own number, are open for inspection on the Tate website. The director has honourably admitted being at fault. The incident has not permanently dented his reputation, however. He remains a hero to his colleagues and to many insiders of the art world, not just for having built Tate Modern at Bankside, but for having built it in the teeth of opposition. I asked him about the nature of this opposition, given that the need to expand and diversify had long been obvious to those who had thought seriously about it.
‘I think the biggest hurdle was the fact that no one asked us to do it,’ he replied. ‘I mean it wasn’t like France where the government says, “We need a museum.” So we had to persuade people that there was a need…There was quite a lot of discussions about whether or not we should be splitting British art in the 20th century away from international; and there were quite a number of people who were disappointed that we didn’t create a totally new building. We had to win them around to the idea of hermit-crablike use of the Bankside Power Station.’
Converting this huge power station, employing the architects Herzog & de Meuron, was expensive. I asked how helpful the government had been. ‘I think I probably need to distinguish between the government and the ministers with whom we were working in the creation of Tate Modern — who on the whole could not have been more helpful, whether it be a Virginia Bottomley or a Chris Smith. Both were very helpful at different and critical moments, but, within the context of government as a whole, culture is still regarded as a low priority. We were fortunate in getting money from the Lottery relatively early on but after that there was still considerable doubt about whether we would manage to raise the funds. The largest sum of money that we raised from any foundational trust was £3 million, towards the overall total of £135 million. So it was an uphill struggle.’
I wondered how Sir Nicholas rated the Tate’s permanent collection. I already knew that one field in which Tate now collects seriously is the neglected art of South America.
‘Well, obviously on the British side we are number one. On the international modern side we are one of three or four, but I would say, quite frankly, that we are quite a long way behind numbers one and two, in terms of the period 1900 to 1960. I think the Tate has done reasonably well post-1960, but in that classic period — before the first world war, between the wars and immediately after the second world war — the Tate’s collection does not compare with that of Moma [New York] or Pompidou [Paris]. They have had the advantage of the principal movements and action in modern art taking place within their own cities in that period.’
Five million visitors swarmed to Tate Modern in the year 2000 when it opened. More remarkably, 4.9 million came in 2006. Surveys indicate that about a third tend to come from London, a third from elsewhere in the UK and a third from abroad. Meanwhile at Millbank, Tate Britain’s attendance figures, which at first sank as predicted, are back to their mid-Eighties level of about 1.75 million. The exhibitions programme at both venues has been crucial. At Tate Modern the superb retrospective of the great American sculptor David Smith has just ended. It contrasted with a popular participatory artwork facilitating a fast descent from the fourth floor to the Turbine Hall — a slide, in other words. Recently at Tate Britain, the thoroughly scholarly Holbein show (soon to be followed by Hogarth) contrasted with Mark Wallinger’s priceless recreation of peace campaigner Brian Haw’s not terribly aesthetic Parliament Square protest — and with the Turner Prize.
I failed in my plea to Sir Nicholas to limit the Turner Prize to once every five years. It still performs ‘a useful function’, he explained. He also managed to convince me that the organisations he supervises have not lost their respect and feeling for history, while conceding that there had been some unhistorical juxtapositions of items in the collection during Tate Modern’s early efforts to present new contexts.
He freely admits that ‘we underestimated, clearly’ the demand for Tate Modern, having based estimates on attendance figures at the old Tate Gallery at Millbank. At weekends, Tate Modern is overcrowded, but Nicholas Serota is excited by the consequent prospect of expanding yet again. The campaign has begun for a shining new glass structure, once more by Herzog & de Meuron, which will be a foil to the sometimes sombre ex-power station. It will be situated on the Southwark side, away from the river but, as potential visitors walk over the Millennium Bridge, they will glimpse the top of it rising above the old power station. ‘The mood of the whole building,’ he says, ‘will change quite dramatically, and I think it is important to recognise that when we do it we will, to some extent, rework the whole building.’ The expansion is not only about more space for visitors. ‘It is about being able to show more of the collection, but it is also about being able to show the collection in different ways, and it is about having an even richer experience of learning and understanding.’
Nick Serota positively embraces change. His passionate espousal of historic, modern and contemporary art is matched by an unflinching determination that the public should benefit by exposure to it. As he talks I sense that awesome ability to raise £135 million from numerous sources, despite the low priority given to culture by the government.