Nick Serota resigns after Tate trustees ban new contemporary art gallery on South Bank! This was back in 1971, when twenty-four-year-old Serota was chairman of the Young Friends of the Tate. The TateGallery was then shying away from cutting-edge art, and the rebellious Young Friends therefore came up with the idea of setting up their own exhibition space.
With great energy, they began converting a dilapidated building in a run-down area near Waterloo station—much to the annoyance of Tate director Sir Norman Reid and his trustees, who feared the public would assume that it was an official venture. Serota and his colleagues were ordered to stop all exhibitions, and the Young Friends committee then angrily resigned en masse. There was then little public interest in the activities of the Tate’s “Young Turks”, so the story never hit the headlines.
The Young Friends was set up in 1969, as an offshoot of the Friends of the Tate, and it soon attracted nearly a thousand members, paying two guineas a year. During their first year the Young Friends organised lectures (Anthony Blunt on Picasso, George Melly on Magritte, Gilbert and George on themselves), conducted a survey of Tate visitors (feeding the results into what was then the very latest technology, a huge and cumbersome computer) and held social events (including a Happening and a raucous cruise on the Thames, which resulted in a large bill for broken wine glasses).
In February 1970 Nick Serota was elected chairman, taking over from John Gormley (whose younger brother Antony would soon be going to art college). Serota was then at the Courtauld Institute, where he was completing his MA dissertation on Turner’s visits to Switzerland. News of the election was relayed to the late Sir Robert Sainsbury (see p.2), chairman of the Tatetrustees.
By this time the Young Friends had managed to get Lambeth Council to give them a rent-free lease for a disused library building in Pear Place, off Waterloo Road, between the station and the Old Vic. The Young Friends enthusiastically set about on the renovations and their May 1970 newsletter reported on what needed to be done: “General clean-up necessary...butcher be warned against dumping offal...a cleaning evening proposed—Nick to arrange.” Soon Pear Place came alive, with Saturday morning painting classes for local youngsters and exhibitions of work by promising art students.
The Tate brand
Among the first shows planned for Pear Place was “cybernetic sculptures” by Stephen Willats. The impoverished artist asked the Young Friends to apply to the Arts Council for a £195 grant, a move which quickly unleashed a storm. One of the members of the Arts Council was then Sir Robert Sainsbury, Tate chairman, and he was furious that the Young Friends had made an application without clearing it with the gallery (to add to the complications, Serota had just started his first job, as a regional officer for the Arts Council).
On 20 July 1970 Sir Robert wrote to Cynthia Fraser, the senior friend responsible for the Young Friends, pointing out that the trustees felt “such exhibitions can have unfortunate consequences”. The main objection was that the public would associate the Young Friends exhibitions with those of the Tate Gallery, and Fraser was therefore instructed to order the cancellation of all further shows.
Fraser passed on the order to Serota, who rejected the instruction on 30 July: “We are appalled by the decision of the trustees of the Tate that the Young Friends may no longer hold exhibitions. This strikes at the fundamental root of our purpose within the Tate and, without exhibitions, the rest of our activities are virtually meaningless. We consider that the decision itself was ill-considered and arbitrary, and that the manner of its being communicated to us was contrary to every precept of natural justice. We cannot therefore accept the decision and would welcome an opportunity to discuss, and clarify. Pending the discussions requested above, we intend to continue with our programme. We must not abandon our commitments: for to do so, would seriously prejudice the goodwill for the Tate, especially among the younger artistic community.”
Fraser was caught in the middle, and she then wrote to Tate director Sir Norman Reid. “I have spoken with Nick Serota on the telephone since he got my letter, and he said he thought it would cause the resignation of some members of his Committee, to which I felt like saying ‘hurray’, but refrained. If in fact the extreme elements on the Committee do resign, what could be better? I do not know who all the extremists are, but I do not think Nick Serota is one of them.”
Following the phone conversation, the Young Friends agreed to compromise, and on 8 August Serota reported that his committee would halt future exhibitions, pending further discussions. However, it would be “impossible to cancel at short notice” the exhibition by art student Alison Wilding, opening on 17 September 1970. Sir Norman later reluctantly allowed the Wilding show to go ahead.
A resigning matter
Although the Young Friends agreed to organise no further exhibitions, the basic dispute remained unresolved. Serota therefore sent a five-page memo to Sir Robert, outlining the arguments of the Young Friends and requesting a meeting with the trustees. He denied that their exhibitions had been “aesthetically dangerous” and pointed out that “none of the trustees have visited Pear Place.” However, the case of the Young Friends was brusquely rejected by the trustees, who unanimously reaffirmed their ban (they included Barbara Hepworth, Howard Hodgkin and John Piper). The Young Friends persevered with their request for a meeting, and on 11 January 1971 Serota and the membership secretary, a radical young film-maker called Mark Fisher, met Sir Robert and Sir Norman, who refused to relent.
Later that evening Serota sent a tough letter to Fraser: “At a meeting tonight, following the trustees’ decision and our talks with Sir Robert Sainsbury, the Young Friends’ committee unanimously agreed to follow through their stated intention of resigning. After two years’ work we are naturally very sorry to have to do this, but we feel our contribution has now been made, judged unacceptable, and rejected.” Enclosed was a formal statement, pointing out that the Young Friends had “brought to the Tate a freshness and energy which has been lacking in many of the National Museums.” Their statement stressed the importance of maintaining contact with young artists: “This can be achieved only on a small scale by visits to studios and unsatisfactorily by lectures. The ideal way is for the artist to be able to meet informally as many Young Friends as possible surrounded by his own work, at exhibitions.”
The statement argued that the Tate needed to do more than simply acquire works of art, and had to involve the public: “While paying lip-service to this ambition, the trustees do not in practice look beyond the collection of paintings, so ignoring the fact that the overwhelming bulk of the funds enabling them to do so come from the general public—who can benefit only if they can be persuaded to come to see them. It is a particular tragedy that this example of the ‘upper class attic’ mentality should come at a time when the Government is trying to impose museum charges.”
Lambeth Council ended the lease for Pear Place when the exhibitions ceased and later in 1971 the building was handed over to the Waterloo Action Centre, a community centre which still operates there. By a curious coincidence, earlier this year the centre opened its own small gallery—the current display is contemporary art by local artists.
Following the resignation of Young Friends committee, a meeting was called on 5 April 1971 to elect a replacement group, which the Tate hoped would prove to be more amenable. A new committee was formed and the Young Friends continued as a separate organisation until 1989, when they were absorbed into the senior friends. The Tate bought its first work by Willats in 1981, “Living with practical realities”. Alison Wilding’s “Airing light” was acquired in 1987, followed by a number of other works. Wilding was given a major show at the Tate Liverpool in 1991 and has twice been shortlisted for the Turner Prize.
Many of the original Young Friends committee went on to greater things. MaryAnne Stevens joined the Royal Academy in 1983 and is now Senior Curator. Gina Glover became a founder director of Brixton-based Photofusion in 1980. Mark Fisher was elected an MP in 1983 and served as Minister for the Arts in 1997-98. Last month he looked back at his time with the Young Friends: “Nick and I were the radicals. We felt that the Tate’s audience was middle class and middle aged. Pear Place was to be an informal, flexible outpost of the Tate that would be a conduit to younger artists. We were keen on education and widening the audience.”
Sir Nicholas Serota, who was appointed director of the Tate in 1988, last month described the Young Friends episode as ushering in “a changing of the guard—a move forward from the mentality of the 1950s.” Asked how he would handle such a situation today as director, he reflected: “I like to think I would have had more of a discussion with the young people before it all went wrong.” But Sir Nicholas does not face a youthful rebellion over the showing of contemporary art and this month sees the inauguration of a huge new exhibition venue on the south bank.