Nick Serota on his second Tate rehang and his vision for what will be “one of the great museums of late twentieth-century art”

Defending his acquisitions and looking to the future, Serita talks on exhibitions and an international outlook


Nick Serota’s major concern since being appointed Director of the Tate Gallery in 1988 has been the rehang of the permanent collection. The first new display was unveiled in January 1990 and attracted 1,500,000 visitors—the highest in the gallery’s history. Modern British art was integrated with its continental and American counterparts in a much sparser hang, while modern architectural accretions were removed in an attempt to “recover the original sense of the architecture”—a less-is-more philosophy wholly in keeping with Serota’s somewhat pinched and high-priestly persona. The displays are to be changed on an annual basis. With the second re-hang now in place, and with details of the exhibition programme and acquisitions policy beginning to emerge, James Hall spoke to Serota about his plans for what he hopes will be “one of the great museums of late twentieth- century art”.

The 1990 re-hang was almost universally acclaimed. But the reception of the 1991 display has been rather lukewarm. Are you disappointed by the reception?

Nick Serota: I don’t think it was that lukewarm. I wasn’t expecting to have the same kind of response in terms of press coverage because obviously you can only completely rearrange the whole collection once. There are bound to be works in last year’s displays that are no longer on view, just by the very nature of the whole process. So, for instance, people are naturally disappointed that Stanley Spencer isn’t shown in the profusion that he was before.

I think there is the feeling that in certain areas the Tate has already reached the second-division.

I’d be interested to know what people regard as the second-division work. I imagine that what they are saying is that Munnings and Traditional British Art are second-division as compared with Spencer. It’s difficult to do better than Spencer in early twentieth-century British art, but that’s not to say that one should suppress all other artists.

Do you yet have an idea of what the third re-hang will look like?

We’re beginning to get a sense of what it might look like. We’ve just had a series of discussions among the curatorial staff and we’re going to take our proposals to the trustees in the next month or so. I think there will be some changes on the earlier British side, and we’re going to do one or two monographic displays where we don’t have any at present. There will be a Gainsborough room, for instance.

The Tate Liverpool has been a great success, attracting a huge audience. There is now a project for another outpost of the Tate in St Ives, which will show changing displays of work by Nicholson, Moore, Hepworth etc. How is this working out?

The position in St Ives is quite straightforward. Cornwall County Council are raising the capital for and constructing a gallery. They have raised (£2.5 million, $4.25 million), nearly as much as they need and they are just about to sign a building contract. The hope is that the gallery will be complete by the summer of 1992 and will open in late 1992 or early 1993. It will be run by the Tate in conjunction with the Barbara Hepworth Museum.

And the proposal for an outpost in Norwich?

Norwich is far behind St Ives. In Norwich a group of local people have formed a steering group and have commissioned, and now published, a feasibility study for establishing some kind of Tate presence. As a measure of our good faith and support for the idea we are presenting two exhibitions this summer—work by Stanley Spencer will be shown at the Norwich Castle Museum, and work by the “School of London” at the Sainsbury Centre. There will also be a Turner exhibition next year, but it really remains for the people of East Anglia to decide whether they can raise the necessary funds. We’re not seeking to colonise large parts of England; we’re simply waiting for people to come to us.

The Tate’s collections are clearly very mobile. With increased European integration is there any reason why your Bacons, for example, could not be exchanged with equivalent groups of work from German, Italian, or French museums?

Certainly the practice of hanging parts of the collection means that when the others are not on view they can be sent elsewhere, whether in this country or indeed on the continent. We are already discussing an exchange with the Pompidou Centre, in exactly the terms that you are suggesting.

I had probably better not say what it is because I am not sure they would want it to be announced.

Three days after arriving at the Tate you said that “MOMA in New York is the great museum of twentieth-century art” and that you wanted the Tate to be “one of the great museums of late twentieth-century art”. At the same time you said that it is impossible in the current climate for a museum to have a comprehensive collection. How is your acquisitions policy being focused?

There is no doubt that we are beginning to build examples of some artists in greater depth, on the model of, for example, Giacometti or Rothko. That process takes several years. It isn’t something that you achieve even with one set of purchases.

So it’s individual artists rather than movements?

It’s both. We will continue to build on the strengths of the existing Surrealist collection, whether that means acquiring another object by Eileen Agar, as we have just done, or a mid-Thirties Picabia. Minimalism is another area in which the collection really is quite strong. It makes sense to add to that, rather than simply to diversify.

Are you not trying to carve out new areas?

I think that one of the areas that we have undoubtedly strengthened since I’ve been here is European sculpture from the Seventies and Eighties. We’ve bought work by Fabro, Rückriem, Cragg, Merz, Deacon, Penone and Baumgarten during the last eighteen months. It wasn’t an area that was prominently presented in the collection before.

You said in an interview published in Art International that a problem in the last thirty years, and particularly in the last decade, is that “most museums are aiming for the same kind of collection, especially in the contemporary field. You get one work by each artist in New York and then you go to Paris and you see much the same”. And yet the non-British contemporary artists whose work you have bought—who also include Kiefer, Clemente and Marden—are pretty much the canonical lot.

It is some of the canonical lot. You need to look at the collection over a period of time and see how it builds. I remember when I was at the Whitechapel everyone used to say “Oh you’ve shown all the Italians”. We’d actually shown Clemente. We never showed Cucchi or Chia. Then they’d say, “You’ve shown all the Germans”. We hadn’t. We’d shown Baselitz, Richter and Kiefer. That was as far as it went. There are many artists who are on the international circuit who aren’t on the list I have just mentioned. There is a further difference because in some instances we are acquiring more than one work by those artists. We are not setting out to discover artists who are not known internationally. It is too early to judge what I’m doing in those terms because there was a real need to bring into the collection some of those names who are regarded internationally as major figures of the 1970s and 1980s. They are artists who were poorly represented in the collection when I arrived here and it seemed to me to be the highest priority to buy works before their prices rose to levels beyond our reach. I could easily turn round and say that I’d have much more room to operate now if those artists had been acquired in the early Eighties. The issue now is how do we move on.

With the European sculptors of the Seventies and Eighties it looked as though the work was purchased with a specific show in mind—that opening display in the Duveen Galleries. Are purchases undertaken with specific shows in mind?

Our purchasing policy will certainly be guided by the recognition that whatever we buy will be shown and it may well be that at certain times we may concentrate on a group of related artists. But we won’t necessarily stop buying their works, simply because we’ve shown them once.

Is it true that you would prefer to use the money you have to acquire a work for the collection rather than pay for expensive exhibitions?

I think I said something on those lines in relation to artists like Baumgarten, who make installations, or to younger artists generally. It is often more helpful for us as a museum to acquire a work, to bring it into a collection and show it not only once but in different contexts. For us it is sometimes more interesting to do that, rather than just make an exhibition of an artist’s work which remains for six weeks and then disappears. I spent the previous ten years of my life putting on exhibitions that disappeared! There are other institutions in London which are equipped to do that and in a sense have that responsibility. We are an institution with a responsibility to collect.

One of the main criticisms levelled against your predecessor Alan Bowness was that the Tate never showed much interest in absolutely contemporary art. Are you concerned to give opportunities to younger artists?

I think that the principal way we can work with younger artists is to be acquire their work. The Tate should be buying the work of younger artists, if not the youngest. But it’s always a difficult decision for the Tate to make as to when it should begin to represent an artist in his or her career. No-one would want this collection to be simply a collection of early works by artists and artists are only likely ever to have between three and six works at most in the collection. We should buy something two of three years into the career, rather than right at the outset. We’re not planning to do a series of shows of younger artists as such. I would like to have a space in the gallery where we could regularly show the work of younger artists, and indeed of older artists, on a smaller scale than a major exhibition. We need to find such a space within the gallery, but I think it’s obvious that I have not attached as high a priority to doing that, as to getting the collection on view, and rotating it. But in the longer term the gallery certainly needs to grow and to show the work of younger artists.

Do you envisage in a future display having a room given over to acquisitions of work by younger artists?

We intend to have a display of new acquisitions in the autumn in the room that is currently occupied by the Tate Gallery shop, which is being refurbished as a gallery. We hope to do this every autumn on a regular basis.

You have said that you want to get more of a rhythm into the exhibition programme. What is that rhythm?

We shall try to build up a programme which contains several strands. Every two years there will be a retrospective of a mid-generation British artist like Richard Hamilton. In alternate years there will be shows of mid-generation European or American artists, like Gerhard Richter or Robert Ryman. On an almost annual basis there will be a one-person or a thematic show to do with the early twentieth century—whether that be Otto Dix or Picasso. In the summer of 1993 we are doing a theme show on post-war art in Paris, not unlike “On Classic Ground”. There will also be, almost every year, a major British show ranging from Van Dyck to, say, Ben Nicholson. There will also be British survey shows, such as the one of British full-length portraiture which is being planned at the moment. The recent Richard Long exhibition inaugurated another series in which a contemporary sculptor will be invited to make work for the whole of the Duveen Galleries. That is being followed by Caro and Serra, and there might well be a younger artist after that.

Your Richard Long exhibition took place nine months before a large retrospective opens at the Hayward. Couldn’t we do with more coordination between the various London exhibition spaces to avoid duplication?

I think that there will be more coordination in the next three or four years. The National Gallery is entering the exhibition scene, the Royal Academy is obviously active, and we are beginning to be more so. The Hayward has had a period of uncertainty, not knowing whether it was going to be rebuilt or not. There is every reason for us to work more closely together. There was a time when the Arts Council used to organise meetings with five or six galleries to talk about their future programmes, but such meetings haven’t taken place for years.

Is this your own initiative?

I think it will be my initiative, but I’ve had to wait until we had some sense of what we were going to do at the Tate. It’s quite difficult getting people to be open about their forthcoming programmes. People don’t like the idea that they are being channelled in a particular direction. Our intention has been to try to develop threads in our programme so that we become known for doing certain kinds of exhibition. It doesn’t mean that similar kinds of show can’t take place elsewhere. What concerns me is that the Tate’s programme should have some kind of coherence.

Presumably a temporary exhibition space is high on your priorities?

We need an exhibition space that isn’t buried in the middle of the collection. We’re looking at the way that the existing building is used and what potential there is to develop the former hospital site next door.

One of your trustees, Gilbert de Botton, has set up an international council of the Tate, “to make the Tate better known abroad and obtain support from abroad and from foreigners living in Britain”. What have you found to be the perception of the Tate abroad and how can that be improved?

The Tate has always been regarded as one of the four or five major collections of twentieth-century art in Europe and America. I think it has perhaps not made enough of its position as a centre for the study of British art, both historic British and twentieth-century. The second area where we have not done as much as we might have done is in the area of international collaboration on exhibitions. Major exhibitions that have been organised elsewhere have not always come to London; one of the reasons for this is that the Tate hasn’t been a very active participant in international exhibition-making. When the Wright of Derby exhibition went to the Met last year it was only the second time a Tate show had been seen in America. Several of the shows we are now planning will go to America. We need to be not just a recipient of exhibitions, but an initiator. It’s about getting a dialogue going; exchanging ideas and exhibitions is one way of doing that.

Do you think we have an inferiority complex and are embarrassed about British art?

In the Seventies there wasn’t a great deal of confidence in the British art world and in British artists and I think that developments in the Eighties have changed that. There is greater recognition of British art, and also a general feeling that artists outside New York have something to contribute.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Necessity as the mother of invention'