Anatomies of exhibitions: Tate Britain. "To define British art"

Director Stephen Deuchar and curators Christine Riding and Robin Hamlyn reveal how they choose the shows


What’s on this month

“Intelligence: new British art 2000”, the first in a series of triennial exhibitions of contemporary British art; “Romantic landscape: the Norwich School 1803-33”; two artists in the “Art Now” series, Martin Creed and Knut Asdam; plus this year’s displays, “RePresenting Britain”. The Turner Prize opens in October and William Blake in November.

The thinking behind exhibitions

At Tate Britain we are dealing with 500 years of British art and there is a vast range of criteria that we need to satisfy. We have to get a balance in the programme between monographic and thematic exhibitions; historic, modern and contemporary shows; well known and lesser known artists; specialist exhibitions and those that attract a wider public. As the national gallery of British art, we have a responsibility to define through our programme what we think matters about British art. For example, next year we are doing a show of the caricaturist James Gillray, because we believe that the satiric tradition is an important strand in British art. We must be careful to avoid insularity and we will have a strand of shows that explore the influence of British art within an international context: “American sublime” in early 2002 presents nineteenth-century American landscape painting and in January 2003 an exhibition curated by Patrick Noon considers Anglo-French cross currents in the early nineteenth century.

Who chooses

SD: I take final responsibility for the programme with head of exhibitions, Sheena Wagstaff, but an exhibition review group made up of representatives from the curatorial, education, fundraising and exhibition departments meets every two months to advise. The usual pattern is to combine an internal curator with relevant expertise from outside.

How do you co-ordinate with Tate Modern

On an informal level we talk regularly so that clashes are avoided, but it is important to remember that there are four galleries. The Tatewide programme group — Liverpool, St Ives, Millbank and Bankside — meets every two months to discuss the balance of the programme across the organisation as a whole.

Any complaints

Most complaints tend to focus on practical rather than intellectual issues; the media attention that centred on Tracey Emin’s Bed at last year’s Turner Prize caused hour-long queues.

The budget

About £1.4 million out of an annual operating budget of £4.5 million. We do have to commit to exhibitions long before we can be certain of sponsorship, but fortunately we usually secure it. BP (annual displays) and Channel 4 (Turner Prize) are our longest-standing sponsors.

How many shows a year

Currently three main shows a year, but this will double with the centenary development in 2001.

The average lead time

Three years for a big show; four to six months for the “Art Now” project series.

Permanent display galleries versus temporary exhibition space

In Spring 2001 the North West Quadrant will double space for both, but the proportion (about one-quarter for temporary exhibitions) will remain more or less the same.

Entrance charges

The museum itself and smaller exhibitions are free, the Turner Prize is £3, William Blake, as a large loan exhibition, will be £8, £5 concessions.

Attendance figures

1.8 million to Millbank last year, with the Pollock show attracting 190,000 and the Turner Prize 118,000.

Interpretation and labelling

The trick is to provide adequate information in a form that is not obtrusive and does not compromise the aesthetics of the show. There are three main layers of interpretation: introductory wall texts for each room and individual captions; free exhibition leaflets; audioguides; and the catalogue.