Interview with Tate's Penelope Curtis on her vision for the gallery: Avoiding the cliché of combining old and new

Making more of Tate Britain’s building and rehanging the collection


Penelope Curtis returned to the Tate after ten years as the curator of the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, becoming the director of Tate Britain in April. On the eve of the start of the Millbank museum’s modernisation that will reveal long hidden spaces, she talks about her vision for the building. She explains why Tate Britain’s identity needs clarifying, her plan to bring to the fore overlooked parts of the collection, why the didactic content of its interpretation needs to be toned down in places and news of a £10m donation.

The Art Newspaper: When you applied for the job, how did you say you would change Tate Britain?

Penelope Curtis: I talked about the importance of the collection, which runs from historic to contemporary art. The works should be better integrated, with a conversation between the old and the new. I wanted to show the collection more aesthetically, sometimes with less information and allowing the art to speak for itself. I proposed a two-tier approach: an open hang that is not didactic, as well as in-focus displays. I want to present parts of the collection that do not get much show—works on paper and the archive. I would like to display more pre-1900 sculpture. Although exhibitions are important, we should focus on what is unique about Tate Britain, which is that it includes the contemporary.

TAN: You inherited a planned refurbishment project for the original rooms in the south-east quadrant. Why is it necessary? Is it true the roofs leak occasionally?

PC: The fabric of the building has held up fairly well, but it is over 100 years old. Yes, there are occasional leaks. The problems of the building have been developing over a long period. They had not reached crisis point, but work needs to be done. The building is also crying out to be better used. We have some beautiful spaces that are not open to the public, but will be: the old library, the director’s office and the basement of the rotunda. Visitor facilities are less good than at other London museums and the cafe is too subterranean.

TAN: Presumably the plans were drawn up before you arrived, so what do you feel about them?

PC: It has been very interesting to work with Caruso St John, the architects. They have been thinking about the building as a historic entity which is being modernised, so they are sifting the good from the bad. This corresponds with what I am doing with the collection, which is to investigate it again, and highlight parts that have been overlooked. I like working with Adam Caruso—we both really believe in the project.

TAN: Fundraising must be difficult in the present climate.

PC: We have raised £28.5m out of the £45m we need. All of it has come from private trusts and individuals, with sums ranging from £1.5m up to £10m. Work will start in February next year and we will reopen in March 2013.

TAN: With a quarter of Tate Britain closed for work, how will you display the collection?

PC: Along the western side of the building, the galleries will have a promenade through the 20th century. Half way down, the central gallery will have a selective display of 70 historic pre-1900 pictures. On the side of the main promenade there will be changing displays on topics such as “Court, Country, City” (18th century) and “Blake and Physiognomy”, with more explanatory material.

TAN: Won’t this mean there is less historic art on view—and more modern and contemporary?

PC: There will be a little more post-1900 art than at present and less pre-1900, although it will not be substantially less.

TAN: After the south-east quadrant, what are your plans for the south-west?

PC: That will happen next. It will not cost as much, as the south-east project includes public facilities near the Millbank entrance. Timing will depend on fundraising, but if it is propitious, we can move straight on.

TAN: You are stressing the permanent collection, so what will happen to temporary exhibitions? How will the financial cuts impact?

PC: Tate as a whole will be doing slightly fewer exhibitions in the coming years, for financial reasons. At Tate Britain the number will fall from five to three a year, mostly in the lower Linbury Galleries. We could do more with the permanent collection, and also use it for temporary exhibitions. It could be a way of integrating the old and the new. True, it has become something of a cliché to bring the contemporary artist into the historic collection. I am aware of the pitfalls. But we are missing a trick if we don’t try harder to make the historic speak to the contemporary. If, for example, we took a theme such as iconoclasm or migration, then these are just as pertinent to the 16th century as to now. We could create a real dialogue.

TAN: Exhibitions tend to be arranged years in advance, so have you had an impact on the programme yet?

PC: I’ve introduced a show on architect James Stirling in the Clore Gallery (he designed the building) in April. Normally it is used for Turner, so this will be a first. I also decided to do a Barry Flanagan exhibition next September.

TAN: What are your acquisition priorities? And do still hope to buy the Van Dyck self-portrait?

PC: It is a really beautiful and compelling picture. I hope it can stay in Britain in a public collection. We have talked recently with our colleagues at the National Portrait Gallery (which made a joint effort to raise the money last spring). The hope is not dead. My interest is not just to focus on trophy pieces, but also to think about our historic collections more broadly. We need to look at different kinds of material, not just very expensive paintings.

TAN: What do you feel about Tate Britain’s image? Is it distinctive from Tate Modern’s?

PC: We still have to clarify that Tate Britain is about the contemporary as well as the past.

TAN: Presumably you can’t change its name.

PC: Our names (Tate Britain and Tate Modern) are not complementary, so there is confusion. We have to work harder to correct this. If we show the contemporary collections in greater depth and with greater regularity we can make a big impact.

TAN: How do you want people to react to Tate Britain and its displays?

PC: I want to retain a sense of continuity and familiarity, and visitors often like to go back to a gallery and see paintings they know. But I want to show that things can change a lot too. I want people to relax in the gallery and not feel they have to learn, but enjoy.