Interview with Tate Modern's new director Vicente Todoli: “Globalisation is the essential spirit of art”

The Spaniard speaks on his 20 years of experience and his visions of the future


The Spaniard Vicente Todoli, who describes himself as an all-round man, takes over as the new director of Tate Modern this month with a 20-year career in museums behind him. Since his appointment four months ago he has been coming to London one day a week to get to know the staff and gradually involve himself in the decision-making process.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper he sounded excited if a little tired as he described the challenge he faces as head of one of the world’s most spectacular contemporary and modern art museums.

The Art Newspaper: Tate Modern will be the third museum you have directed. You started at IVAM, the contemporary art centre in Valencia, and went on to the Serralves Museum in Oporto. You turned these two national museums into internationally recognised institutions. How did you get your new post?

VT: It was a process of several months, so it came as no surprise. My attitude was: if I am chosen, perfect; if not, this is not a bitter blow because I am very happy in Serralves. I had even been thinking of taking a sabbatical year!

TAN: You are used to museums on another scale. The Tate is almost a government department. How will you handle such a huge bureaucratic machine and hierarchy?

VT: Beginnings are never easy and I have lived through them in Serralves and IVAM alike. It is true that the Tate Modern has a huge bureaucracy but that is what excites me. My idea is to grow together.

TAN: What are your ideas about directing a museum?

VT: The first thing is to get to know the institution thoroughly. There are always short cuts and it has always been my policy to find the straight line between two points and also to try to spend time on creative not mechanical tasks, because that is what adds value to the final product.

TAN: Is administration equally essential in directing a museum?

VT: I have always said that a director should make it possible to implement a programme and create a collection. People talk about bureaucracy when things become too slow and heavy, but call it management when the process helps achieve objectives. The ideal is to turn “bureaucracy” into “management”. It depends on the support of the whole team.

TAN: You say that every museum has a personality. What is it about Tate Modern that attracts you?

VT: I know some of the staff and they are incredibly well qualified.

It has a collection, which I know well as a former seeker of loans for exhibitions. I have always been constrained by collections without great resources and this limited the exchange of loans. Tate’s collection is a perfect combination of historical and contemporary art, a combination which I find stimulating.

TAN: Which areas of art have most interested you as a curator?

VT: I never finished my thesis nor did a doctorate because I was not interested in devoting several years of my life to one subject alone and great diversity has always interested me.

I have always been driven by a deep curiosity about the world and the same happens when I look at art. For me art is about the freedom of the eye to look in every direction.

TAN: Which of your exhibitions are you most proud of?

VT: A great exhibition does not have to be large. What is important in an exhibitions programme is its coherence. In IVAM I organised a show on Rosenquist, others on Paris in the 1930s, but the one on Strindberg, that had only 22 small pictures and some photographs and occupied a room of 100 square-metres, was magnificent.

TAN: For an artist to be shown at Tate has global repercussions. What exhibitions are you thinking of holding?

VT: When I am better acquainted with the particular circumstances of Tate, its history, its collection, then I will come up with proposals.

“Landscape as self-portrait” is one idea. I would love it to be taken up by the team of great professionals at the museum with their many fantastic ideas.

TAN: The globalisation of art is today ever more marked.

VT: Today as always. Art has always been moved by individuals. Before businessmen, artists were the precursors in breaking down frontiers. Globalisation is the essential spirit of art. The world is wider today and art has always had an openness of viewpoints because that is its nature.

The only problem today is tremendous commercialisation which is killing much creativity and controls the mind of some artists who take decisions dictated by it.

TAN: When we speak of contemporary art certain stock phrases spring to mind: “Everything is valid”, “Everything is art”. Do you think we are over-permissive in the way we judge art today? Has the way been lost?

VT: I think that it is the artists who define the world of art and the museums are no more than intermediaries.

The art world has always been alive and creative. Inevitably, time canonises what earlier seemed an act of wildness. Time chooses. To say that art has reached a dead end or that all this experimentation cannot be tolerated is to say more about oneself than about art. By this I mean to say that there comes a moment in a person’s life when the capacity for openness is inevitably blocked. There are some cells that fill with sensations and grow torpid. When this happens it is time to retire.

TAN: You were educated in the US, at the universities of Yale and New York. Is your concept of the museum above all American: principally, a place of education?

VT: A museum is investigation and dissemination, but, above all, education. And even more so for children. Artistic education for children is vital. Children are the public of the future. We cannot allow people to see art and museums as something remote in their lives.

TAN: What artistic education did you have?

VT: The first time I saw an exhibition was when I was taken to Valencia to see an exhibition of Picasso. Of course Picasso was not on the curriculum and it was a revelation.

TAN: Have you always been interested in the cutting edge?

VT: I have always been interested by the new and the old, by everything. At the same time as I was studying contemporary art on my own account, I specialised in Mannerism at university, and they were not incompatible. It is the same with music or literature. I read Cervantes at the same time as Faulkner.

TAN: What does art mean to you?

VT: The function of art is as a metaphor; it opens doors where no one knew they existed. It shows you new worlds and so extends your world.

TAN: Do you have time for hobbies?

VT: I believe that body and spirit have to be kept in balance. Cinema and literature have been my sources of nourishment since I was very young; at the same time physical activity is essential: I have played a lot of football. I jog.

TAN: In previous museums, you were an active buyer. What acquisitions policy do you envisage for the Tate?

VT: I built up the IVAM collection on the foundations of the earlier one of Spanish art and made it international. In Serralves, too, I defined my philosophy, the board approved it and I was given carte blanche. Now it will be different; the Tate no longer allows decisions to be taken alone.

TAN: You will be the director of Tate Modern, but Nicholas Serota, director general of the Tate, will still be at the top and he is known to be fairly controlling. How do you feel about this?

VT: Wherever you are there are people above and people below you. In Serralves too there is a board which sets the general policy. In Spain, it is not only the boards, but also the politicians that lay down the policy for museums.

In the case of Tate, there is a board of trustees and a director general. I have followed Sir Nicholas’s career since he was director of the Whitechapel Gallery and agree with much of his thinking.

TAN: How will you exhibit the permanent collection?

VT: I have always used the collection to stage exhibitions, to present new, evolutionary theories and never to present the traditional stories which can easily be found in art books. I am interested in the question “What is it?” and I believe it should be the visitor who imagines his or her own story. A museum should tell stories, not present history.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “Globalisation is the essential spirit of art”