Serota on a sustainable future for museums: why Tate needs to change in a changing world

Moving on from traditional didacticism and adapting to a new level of modern communication


The forces that are changing the world are challenging the role of museums. Our world is different, even compared with 20 years ago: the advance of globalisation, increasing cultural diversity, technological and personal mobility has had an impact on the world we address. We see the world in a different light and from a different perspective: our understanding of modernism and the Western historical tradition has been transformed by the increasing diversity of the artists and audiences we engage with, by the character of artists’ work, by the teams we work with and by the international expertise they represent.

The world also sees museums differently. Wide international access, directly or through digital media and at all levels of understanding offers the opportunity for new kinds of collaboration with individuals and institutions.

The traditional function of the museum has been that of instruction, with the curator setting the terms of engagement between the visitor and the work of art. But in the past 20 years the development of the internet, the rise of the blog and social networking sites, as well as the more direct intervention in museum spaces by artists themselves, has begun to change the expectations of visitors, and their relationship with the curator as authoritative specialist. The challenge for museums in the 21st century is to find new ways of engaging with much more demanding, sophisticated and better informed viewers. Our museums have to respond to and become places where ideas, opinions and experiences are exchanged, and not simply learned.

Like the contemporary art that it presents, Tate Modern is operating in a vastly expanded field. For ten years it has experimented, while developing and refining its thinking. Its collections and exhibition programmes have become richer, more representative of world contemporary practice, always setting the new alongside the accepted and challenging our appreciation of the past and the present.

In the process we have developed a new relationship with our audiences. The artists’ commissions for the Unilever Series in the Turbine Hall have encouraged a new level of engagement. Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project—“the giant sun”, Carsten Höller’s Test Site—“the slides” and Doris Salcedo’s Shibb­oleth—“the crack”, brought new audiences to contemporary art, through their scale, audacity and imagination.

In a further transformation of Tate Modern we are now planning additional spaces that will provide places for individuals and groups to exchange skills, expertise and ideas. We need spaces for reflection and the intimate engagement with works of art, but we also need the friction and energy generated by the presentation of contested views and values. Art often emerges from ferment, as in Paris in 1907, New York in 1945, or Rio in 1960.

The museum of the 21st century should be based on encounters with the unfamiliar and on exchange and debate rather than only on an idea of the perfect muse—private reflection and withdrawal from the “real” world. Of course, the museum continues to provide a place of contemplation and of protection from the direct pressures of the commercial and the market. It has to have some anchors or fixed points for orientation and stability, but it also has to be a dynamic space for ideas, conversations and debate about new and historic art within a global context.

In the new Tate Modern, spaces for learning and interpretation will be fully integrated within the exhibitions and displays, encouraging participation and dialogue with visitors, and to engender a deeper and more participative experience that endures in the long term. Our aim is to work with artists and other professionals across disciplines and create programmes in partnership with our public, on site and online. In the process we shall make much more evident that the museum is a place where ideas and experiences are exchanged between specialists and generalists, between those who know and those who bring new perspectives. In this way we shall broaden the purpose of curatorial endeavour beyond instruction to embrace collaboration and dialogue. We plan to move from a Western-centred, single-voiced and single-lensed perspective to the many-voiced and many-lensed viewpoints of a new internationalism.

For Tate to have a sustainable future, we will need to stretch the principles of collaboration and exchange. Collaborations will require that we abandon some notions of institutional demarcation or sole authorship, and replace them with public access, integration, and the widest possible engagement with academics, artists and specialists elsewhere. Tate will become as much a publisher as an author of ideas. Internally, we will see a greater integration with a closer relationship between the curatorial and learning departments. We also plan much greater public access to areas such as conservation and archive collections. Externally, Tate will build on its successful reciprocal partnerships with other institutions by sharing its collection and engaging critically with the new practice and currents of thought that are shaping contemporary culture.

Within Britain the “Artist Rooms” programme, founded on the dealer Anthony d’Offay’s magnificent gift of more than 700 works of art, has demonstrated in its first year that we can bring outstanding works of art to everyone, no matter where they live. We want to ensure that the arts are a more vital part of the national curriculum and experience of young people whether in school or beyond the classroom.

We also aim to strengthen our collaboration with artists and intellectuals to make Tate a champion of thought and new ideas. We have to promote the contribution that artists make to society through the moral, social and economic, as well as aesthetic dimensions of their work. The strength of our voice will depend on achieving a stronger sense of shared ownership in the museum, making Tate an institution that is open to all and which reaches out to everyone, irrespective of their background, age or experience.

Public interest in all aspects of visual culture is greater than ever. I believe that the experience of engaging with the art of our own time and rethinking our relationship with the art of the past will provide insights into ourselves. It will also help us to appreciate each other’s values and allow us to play a full part in our culture and society. Each encounter will be personal. However, it will also be informed by the attitudes and insights of others. We aspire to make Tate an open forum in which new encounters are always possible.

Originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'Why Tate needs to change'


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