Tate Gallery: With Bow Bells, Cockney costermongers and artists

Iwona Blazwick describes a new and socially engaged style of curatorship at London’s future Tate Gallery of Modern Art

Museums used to have the same image as banks: grand Neo-classical buildings with alarmingly middle-class employees nurturing an hermetic culture. In the UK and the US, at any rate, strenuous attempts have been made to change this over the last ten years, but while attendance figures can now be uncomfortably high, the profile of the visitors remains in most cases obstinately middle-class. Thomas Krens at the Guggenheim in New York has just succeeded in attracting a wider public with his motorcycle exhibition, but admits that it may well not return for anything more conventional (see pp. 36-37).

The Tate Gallery is thinking rather more creatively about how to interest people and looks like becoming the most flexible and engaged major museum in the world.

“We do not want just to parachute in when we open in 2000”, says Iwona Blazwick, the new Head of Exhibitions and Display at the future Tate Gallery of Modern Art, housed in Southwark’s former power station at Bankside. Already, they are using the walls of this vast Art Deco building as an outdoor cinema. Stand outside on the riverbank at 8 p.m. any Monday until 26 October and you will see a free programme of films by artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark, Dan Graham, Catherine Yass and Richard Serra.

They also want to make friends with the locals. Project team leader for Bankside, Dawn Austwick, with her community officer, George Cochrane, has sent invitations by name to all the residents of the neighbouring public housing to come into the Bankside visitor centre, see the plans and meet with artists. They have been rewarded with overwhelming support, despite the noise and the dust from the rebuilding.

Ms Austwick has also wanted to get over the all too common phenomenon of a cultural institution opening in a slummy area, raising property prices but doing nothing for locals except to employ them in low-grade warding or catering jobs.

Together with the Design Museum, the South Bank Centre and the National Theatre—all big cultural institutions in the borough of Southwark on the south bank of the Thames—the Tate has devised a training programme for the unemployed of the area: everything from stage manager, gallery technician to box office employee. At the end, everyone is guaranteed an interview, if not necessarily a job, but at least they have a skill to offer.

Iwona Blazwick and curator Frances Morris have also commissioned artistic projects which are more like community fêtes than conventional contemporary art. In neighbouring Borough Market, full of Cockney fruit and veg sellers, artist Anna Best last month devised an event called “The wedding project”. A wedding was video-linked live to the market, where the reception took place and anyone who turned up was a wedding guest. The market was decorated with special fruit and veg displays, rumba dancers and a giant wedding cake. Guests were invited to show their own wedding videos.

In January and February, “Bankside browser”, by outside curators Andrew Renton and Kitty Scott, will involve as many Southwark artists as want to take part, from the most fashionable Delfina Studios inmate to the Sunday painter, to deposit a work in any medium—video, painting, embroidery, jigsaw puzzle or whatever—in an archive box. “We thought it would be exciting as a kind of map of the artistic activity of the area”, says Ms Blazwick, “There is no selection procedure, so everybody gets to show”, she explains.

The Tate is a broad church and wants to embrace also the rich and conservative City on the opposite bank of the Thames. The US-based Iranian artist Shireen Neshat, who deals beautifully with themes such as fundamentalism and authority, has been commissioned to do a video installation called “Turbulent” for St Mary le Bow, the Wren church on Cheapside whose famous bells define a Cockney. “This is a church where historically very important changes in the Church of England’s orthodoxy have taken place”, says Ms Blazwick, “and the combination of religion, law and music is essential to this piece, which we are showing in November and December”.

She freely admits, however, that not all commissions may work. While all projects will be recorded, it does not necessarily mean that these temporary events will enter the collections of the Tate.

Iwona Blazwick is also responsible, under Lars Nittve, the director of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, for thinking about how to present the twentieth century in the gallery’s own displays and in exhibitions.

The Tate has consulted widely, with both art historians and artists, over how to do this. “We are trying to say that there is not just one story for the twentieth century, although traditional museums have presented a single story. The models have been very linear and too compartmentalised: ‘ism’ is not really followed by ‘ism’; you get all sorts of overlaps in reality. I think that artists have felt very frustrated by how they have been ring-fenced”, she says.

“We have spent six months brainstorming, with a room covered with maps and charts and arrows going in all directions. How do you relate art to society? How do you show the ideas that artists have?

“I saw a big collection of Arte Povera in Spain, and there was not a single reference to their philosophy, their political interests, their group shows—just the final production. How do you re-connect those things without being overly didactic or using extraneous display techniques?” she asks.

It is likely that Iwona Blazwick’s slightly unconventional background is a help rather than a hindrance in coming up with new ideas. Her formative experiences have been, not in academic museum curatorship (her degree was in English and Fine Art), but in exhibition-creation. In the Eighties, she started her career at the ICA; then she directed the Air Gallery, an impecunious but ingenious artists’ space near the Sadlers Wells Theatre, subsequently returning to the ICA as head of exhibitions, where she worked with talented colleagues such as James Lingwood, who went on to found Artangel, the art-commissioning agency.

She was at the ICA when it did one of the first exhibitions anywhere to juxtapose old and contemporary art, with paintings by Tony Bevan alongside the grotesque heads of Franz-Xavier Messerschmidt and the sculpture of Arnulf Rainer.

She expects to see this kind of comparative display from time to time at Bankside. She is enthusiastic, for example, about the desire expressed by Italian sculptor Luciano Fabbro to see his work next to paintings by Turner.

She says that they also want the displays to be dynamic. There may be various versions of the twentieth century on show at any time: a thematic one, which follows an idea; another that looks at a decade in detail; another that presents a single artist and so on. They would like to get the artists themselves involved, making new work inspired by the collection or hanging the works.

In any case, the space ratio between the Tate’s own collections and temporary exhibition space is a low 3:1 (4,250 and 1,300 square metres respectively), which on its own would be enough to invite return visits to Bankside.

What emerges from talking to this clear-minded and very determined woman in her early forties, is that the Tate works very much as a team, with the director, Nick Serota, nonetheless prepared to give people considerable freedom to think creatively, reinvent the role of the curator and rethink the museum. There is an encouraging pragmatism and seriousness in the activities being proposed: why should this matter to any one is a question that implicitly is being asked all the time; why should we, the Tate, be doing this?

As Iwona Blazwick says of the Tate’s role in contemporary art, “We are aware of the fact that we are in a field where there are a lot of people doing an excellent job already: the Serpentine, the Whitechapel, the ICA and the Hayward Gallery. It is the gallery’s role to do things that they don’t have the resources or the space to do.”

o The Millennium Bridge, which will link the Tate Gallery of Modern Art to the City, is to be partly funded by a charity which dates back over 800 years. This follows a suggestion in The Art Newspaper in 1994, when we “floated” the idea that the new footbridge should be paid for by Bridge House Estates. The charity was founded in 1282 when Edward I gave some land to the City of London, the income of which was to be used to maintain the twelfth-century London Bridge. Now administered by the Corporation of London, the charity’s assets have grown to £400 million (The Art Newspaper, No.39, June 1994, p.23). Last month it was announced that Bridge House Estates Trust Fund is to contribute £3.5 million towards the £15.7 million Millennium Bridge, which has been designed by architects Sir Norman Foster & Partners, sculptor Sir Anthony Caro and engineers Ove Arup & Partners. Other funders include the Millennium Commission (£7.2 million), the international bank HSBC Holdings (£3 million) and the Government Office for London (£1 million), leaving £1 million to be raised. Work on the bridge is to start next month and should be completed in April 2000. It will be London’s first new river crossing since Tower Bridge in 1894 and the capital’s only pedestrian bridge.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 85 October 1998