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A Tate for the 21st century: decisions to be made about the collection remaining at Millbank Tate

With modern foreign art to be displayed at Bankside, opinion within the Tate differs as to how the story of British art should be told

The Tate now has a unique opportunity to rethink the way in which British art is presented. With modern foreign art going to Bankside, Millbank will be relaunched as the Tate Gallery of British Art in 2001. Although those planning the Millbank project have “not fully developed their ideas”, Director Nicholas Serota and some of his colleagues agreed to let The Art Newspaper in on the debate.

To cut off or not?

The question still raising strong feelings is whether contemporary British art should be shown at Millbank, or just at the Tate Gallery of Modern Art. Andrew Wilton, Keeper of the British Collection, argues for a cut-off date for Millbank: sending all contemporary art to Bankside would free more space for the historic collection. “There will be a modern art museum at Bankside, and British art should be shown in the strongest way at Millbank.”

Various cut-off dates have been suggested and Mr Wilton admits that there is an argument for making it 1900, the same year as the National Gallery. But he plumps for the eve of World War II: “I personally would go for 1939, up to Spencer and early Moore.” Simon Wilson, Curator of Interpretation, has also been tempted by the idea of a mid-twentieth century cut-off. He points out that there are very few pictures from the sixteenth century and then the numbers increase considerably as one approaches the present day. If there is no cut-off at Millbank, the quantity of late twentieth century art could mean that space will still be very tight.

Mr Serota firmly opposes a cut-off and stresses that the Tate Trustees have made the firm decision that contemporary British art will be shown at Millbank. “If a gallery is devoted to a national school, you either have to take it up to the present or else declare that after a certain date the national school has ceased to exist. We need to show the continuity of British art.” Mr Serota says many visitors “enjoy the contrasts and juxtapositions, such as Hogarth and Hockney—and this gives an energy to the displays.” Jeremy Lewison, Acting Keeper of the Modern Collection, agrees: “If a gallery is to stay alive, it needs contemporary art.”

Chronology versus theme

Another challenge is whether to break with tradition and display the collection by theme. Mr Wilson believes a thematic hang would be an exciting experiment: “The building divides naturally into four quadrants, and in each of them we could show landscapes, portraits, the imaginative human figure (Spencer, Bacon, etc) and abstraction.” He points to the success of the recent Berlin exhibition on “The age of Modernism”, which told the story of twentieth-century art in four separate paths.

Despite radical proposals for a thematic display, the provisional idea is to stick to a broad chronological sequence, mainly because this is simplest for visitors (Tate surveys show that the public like a chronological framework, although they often deviate and criss-cross through the central Duveen Galleries). Mr Serota admits that the chronological progression will not be rigid: “At intervals it will be broken, and occasionally we will show contemporary art alongside the historic collection.”

Jockeying for space

There should be 35% more room for British art, but space will still be tight and curators are fighting their own corners. Mr Wilton, for example, feels the eighteenth century will still be squashed and his colleague Assistant Keeper Annie Lyles feels that the nineteenth century deserves more space.

Mr Serota’s rule is that space must be largely determined by the strengths of the collection: “The seventeenth century is not as rich as we would like, and we don’t have great Van Dycks. So there will be less space for the seventeenth than for the eighteenth century.” Other beneficiaries of the Millbank development are likely to include Constable, Blake, sporting art, Victorian genre painters and the Pre-Raphaelites.

A preview of the layout

An unpublished plan has been drawn up, with Tudor painting starting in the newly-refurbished area in the north-west corner, close to its current home. This quadrant of the building will cover the period up to Gainsborough. The long room now used for Victorian pictures is earmarked for Grand Manner and History paintings, including Reynolds and Lawrence. The next quadrant, running up to the front entrance, will show Constable to the Pre-Raphaelites.

The twentieth century will be to the right of the front portico, with this quadrant covering the Bloomsbury Group to Bacon. The final quadrant, which will also include galleries for mid-scale exhibitions, runs from the St Ives artists to contemporary installation and video work.

Interspersed throughout the chronological path will be six rooms devoted to works on paper (at present these are shown in the basement). According to Sandy Nairne, Director of Public and Regional Services, the Tate also hopes to show occasional items of decorative art among the paintings, perhaps a Flemish tapestry or a piece of Morris furniture. The central Duveen Galleries will continue to be used for sculpture.

There are to be two temporary exhibition spaces. The mid-scale area on the main floor will have three shows a year, one special exhibition, the Turner Prize short list and a display from the Tate’s collection. Downstairs in the lower floor of the refurbished north-west quadrant will be the main exhibition area, accessible from a new entrance in Atterbury Street. Again there will be three shows: one historic, one twentieth century and one contemporary.

The rehanging debate

Mr Serota’s policy of regular rehanging has transformed the Tate since 1990, but it is now being reassessed. Mr Lewison admits: “Rehanging has been widely discussed, but not fully resolved. One of the problems is whether the conservation department can accommodate it. I would like to see a mixed diet, with some static displays.” Mr Wilton is against rotating the earlier part of the collection. “I personally believe that up to about 1820 it is a waste of energy to rehang every year. Special exhibitions should be the creative outlet to throw new light on the collection,” he said.

But Mr Serota remains keen on annual rehangs, saying they are “refreshing to the collection, the visitor experience and the curatorial staff”, although he accepts that some parts will be rotated at different frequencies. This looks likely to be the policy: the earlier historic displays will have annual “variations” (less radical than a full rehang), the early twentieth century will get an annual “rotation” and contemporary works may well be changed twice a year.

Key artists will always be on show, represented by at least five pictures. Living artists will be excluded from this special status, since it would be an invidious task to select them. “One needs the benefit of hindsight,” explains Mr Lewison.

The new look

Mr Serota admits he is often regarded as favouring a sparse hang with acres of wall space, but claims this is a myth. “Sometimes I feel our rooms are too lightly hung,” he said. He now wants more diversity in the density of the hang, depending on the pictures. On labelling, he also suggests variety. “There may be one or two rooms where there is no text at all. We don’t want to clothe the walls with writing.”

And how will the walls reflect the new art history? Mr Serota says the paintings will be displayed with “more of a sense of context, and with an examination of the social and historical circumstances in which they were produced.” The pictures may be the same, “but we will be presenting them in a slightly different light.”

What happens to the Clore?

The Clore Gallery, built in 1987 for the Turner bequest, will still not be in the right position with regard to the chronological sequence in the main building. Some thought was given to using the Clore for other purposes (such as temporary exhibitions), but this idea was not pursued. The Tate has an outstanding collection of Turner and the Clore was built specifically to house it.

One small change has just passed relatively unnoticed: the recent exhibition of works on paper by Francis Towne is the Clore’s first in-depth display of another artist. Shows on Turner’s contemporaries are likely to continue, with Thomas Girtin as an obvious candidate. The Clore may also be used to display modern artists who have responded to Turner, such as Anish Kapoor. The other proposed change is that a few Turner paintings should be taken out of the Clore and shown alongside his contemporaries in the main galleries.

What is British ?

An artist does not have to be British to gain admittance to Millbank, as long as their pictures were painted in Britain. Van Dyck and Canaletto are therefore allowed in. Foreign artists will also be shown occasionally where they have close links with British art, and an example might be a display on the influence of the Cubists on Vorticism.

The more difficult challenge is to represent the art of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Richard Humpreys, Head of Education, points out that work from these regions is badly under-represented in Tate. “With its present collection, can we really be the Gallery of British Art?” he asks. One option is for the Tate to borrow more widely, from collections such as the National Galleries of Scotland.

Co-operation among the nationals

Following last May’s swap of Impressionist pictures with the National Gallery, the way has been paved for further co-operation. Mr Serota points out that the National Gallery has very few British paintings after 1850, although its foreign art runs up to 1900. Making the point with some delicacy, he says, “We would like to give them the opportunity to show as wide a range of British art as they wish”, suggesting that the Tate would be willing to help with loans, presumably in the hope of borrowing earlier works.

There is also more scope for exchanges with the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A houses the national collection of sculpture before 1900, and since Millbank’s earliest sculpture only go back to the 1870s, the Tate is keen to borrow earlier pieces to tell more of the story of British art. Another area under discussion is Constable, where the V&A has an outstanding collection left by the artist’s daughter Isabel.

This month the Tate Trustees will start considering applications for the key Millbank job, Director of the Tate Gallery of British Art. An appointment is expected later in the year. Another key appointment to be made shortly is the Director of Collections, a post just beneath that of the overall Director, Mr Serota. The position of Director of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art will be advertised this winter.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A Tate for the 21st century'