Openings United Kingdom

Ten years on: Tate Modern reaches a watershed

After a decade of acclaim, will its success be topped by Tate Modern 2?

The philosopher WB Gallie developed the idea of “essentially contested concepts” to describe terms that are central to political debate but that necessarily lack an agreed definition—“freedom” and “equality”, for example. When it comes to museum buildings, “success” is another essentially contested concept. Everyone involved has a different set of criteria. The curator judges success by how the art looks on the walls; the architect is usually more preoccupied with the visitors’ and the viewers’ emotional responses to the siting and massing of the building itself; and the sponsoring politician is looking for economic impact, tourism, jobs and some reflected glory. First impressions being what they are, the rest of us will probably see the museum refracted through the lens of the opening festivities, whether we were there or just read about them.

To make matters more challenging for the leadership of a museum building project, the criteria that loom largest for those closest to it and that relentlessly define and fill daily life—especially where public funding is involved—are those that history treats most dismissively: the project managers’ holy trinity of conformity to the budget, the timetable and the original brief. If you ignore these you are in trouble today; but if you are bound by them, you are in trouble tomorrow.

Tate Modern’s success

So a vital part of leadership is the ability to construct and reconstruct a consensus around what “success” actually means, —managing expectations; authoritatively moulding and articulating a set of compatible aspirations for each of the multiple perspectives that inform the project; and doing all this forcefully enough and early enough in the process to have some impact not just on the perception but on the reality too. You need to make sure the project is considered by everyone that matters as both “doable” and “worth doing”—neither is enough by itself.

Tate Modern, which opened ten years ago, is a success by most criteria. It is as close to the unrealisable ideal of the “incontestable” as any new museum building of even approximately comparable ambition that has been completed in the past 20 years. It has focused popular and critical attention on the art that it displays, and it has done this with conviction and flair. It has drawn visitors to its environs in vast and unanticipated numbers; in the process it has had the intended catalytic impact on a neglected part of central London; it has given a new life to a vast and intractable building; its formidable Turbine Hall and—to a lesser extent—its other galleries have housed a series of spectacular and memorable exhibitions; and it has served as a focal point for a broad swathe of social activity, engagement and play.

One need not adopt any position with respect to the wars that surround the historical significance and value of contemporary art to assent to this success. As Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, memorably put it, Tate Modern “rebooted perceptions of the place of London in the contemporary art world”. This is all in large part attributable to the profound understanding of Nicholas Serota, its long-standing director, of both the substantive and presentational aspects of leadership in the museum-building game.

Refining the vision

On the substantive front, unlike many of the early lottery-funded grands projets in the UK, Tate Modern benefited from the process of a long, pre-lottery incubation period, in which the underlying rationale for a dedicated gallery—and the physical space that it would require—were refined and revised. This happened in the context of both the intellectual and civic debate he fuelled about the lack of a dedicated modern and contemporary art museum in Britain’s capital, and of the fitting of that mandate to various, ultimately aborted, early candidates for the location. Many lottery projects that were pulled together to short order and in response to the sudden turning on of the lottery funding spigot lacked this incremental, lapidary process. This showed both in their functionality as buildings and in their vitality as organisations—the Millennium Dome downstream from Bankside being only the most obvious example.

The ultimate choice of site for Tate Modern was utterly audacious—above all, in embracing the scale of Giles Gilbert Scott’s defunct power station. In 1994, I walked the length and breadth of the original building, courtesy of Nuclear Electric, who at the time owned it as the result of an odd quirk in the division of the spoils of privatisation. They were gingerly exploring “adaptive reuse” and I, for one, declared it simply too big for any single cultural purpose. I am sure many board members, funders and others who had to be convinced had the same, initial, cowed reaction to its mass and then had to be turned around, one by one, by a forceful and imaginative account of its potentialities.

Rebranding Tate

The ground was carefully prepared for each constituency. Artists were canvassed and their preferences for exhibiting in “found spaces” underscored, faint though the traces of those spaces ultimately were on Bankside; curatorial perspectives were articulated—perhaps over-articulated—that replaced the conventional “conveyor belt of history” approach with thematic juxtapositions. At Millbank, the ahistorical re-hangs were designed to underscore the abundance of the holdings, and thereby provide a rationale for expansion; at Bankside, they were to gloss the historical thinness of same collections.

Under the design consultancy Wolff Olins’s fastidious tutelage, the techniques of corporate branding were applied to external relations in their totality with a thoroughness unprecedented in the arts at the time, anywhere—New York’s Museum of Modern Art was agog. This applied right down to the slightly jarring fiat that disposed of the definite article in “Tate Britain”. The case study still on Wolff Olins’s website is formidable and only conceivable with a client that is a willing partner in every aspect of identity management.

Perhaps the most brilliant presentational move was securing political support at all levels—local, London, national—without any articulated operating plan, any hope of generating significant income and with a strong commitment to free entry. Serota’s close partnership with his chairman, Dennis Stevenson, was critical to this coup, as probably was the formative hinterland provided by his mother, the late Baroness Serota, a formidable force in London politics.

Gaining political support

An ongoing injection of public sector funding was going to be required to make a go of Tate Bankside and this was obvious to informed observers from the inception, no matter how successful its catering or retail or its pioneering cultivation of new donors and sponsors. But the later this truth became obvious to the less informed, then the more difficult it would be for politicians to repudiate this zeitgeist-steeped and, by now, politically fashionable project.

Tate Modern was too big to embarrass or to be embarrassed by, and the revenue commitment was manoeuvred gracefully and definitively into place. For all the doubtless fraught and on-going traumas of annual public expenditure negotiation subsequently, this separated Tate Bankside from the pack and made it closer to the grands projets of France than to most other cultural capital projects in the UK.

Completing Tate Modern by 2012

For more than five years, the Tate has been publicly planning its next chapter of expansion, the “completion” of the Bankside site, a 60% expansion of floor space, budgeted at £215m and designed by Herzog and de Meuron, the original architects. Preparatory site work is under way, although the original intention to complete by 2012, in time for the London Olympics, would be a formidable sprint by any measure. The project has, like Tate Modern, had the benefit of substantial incubation time and, in addition, it has the perspective that experience and success has afforded the board and management of the Tate, not just at Bankside, but on Millbank and in Liverpool and St Ives.

For all this, it feels oddly lacking in conviction—not just with respect to fundraising, which always has a degree of bluster and bootstrapping about it, and not just because of the veiled reservations of Tate Modern’s exiting director, Vicente Todolí, expressed about the issues of museums focusing overly on expansions. Rather, it is the brief itself, so well-explored first time round, that this time is under-articulated, anaemic even, in its cultural, civic and social rationale. It is the focus on architecture rather than purpose that dominates the discourse.

Perhaps I am just re-walking the original building, again defeated by my own lack of imagination. But it may be that the arc of physical expansion of the cultural sector is coming to an end. We live increasingly in a virtual age, in an age where the weightless, the mobile, the contingent, the adaptive, the provisional and the collaborative are more compelling than their antonyms. Somehow the Tate gallery, and its leadership, need to demonstrate more vividly how their aspirations engage with this radically changed time and agenda. It’s not whether it is “doable”; it’s whether it’s “worth doing”. Adrian Ellis

The writer is a director of AEA Consulting

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