Nicholas Serota

Nicholas Serota discusses an international outlook and Tate’s new worldwide web

Developing a global reach is just as important for major cultural institutions as it is for big businesses

In a recent report on the UK, The Economist asked a question: do we want to be part of Little England or Great Britain? As a magazine with a focus on international politics and business, it was arguing that Britain needs to rediscover an open, internationalist, trading culture, one that is in danger of being replaced by a narrow isolationism. But while The Economist was focusing on the trade in goods, I would argue that the trade in ideas is equally important. In the arts, cultural exchange has become ever more central to everything we do.

At Tate we believe not only that international exchange is essential to a thriving cultural sector but, with the new possibilities created by technological and social changes, that we must respond to the newly globalised world. Just as the balance of global economic power is shifting, no one region can look upon itself as the sole trader in cultural currency.

Tate is seeking to become much more engaged in and knowledgeable about art beyond Western Europe and North America, and to share the benefits of that engagement with an international audience. We also have to recognise that “British” achievement in the arts, as in other disciplines, has been infused by the contributions of those born elsewhere, from Holbein and Van Dyck, Fuseli and Zoffany, Whistler and Sargent to Freud and Auerbach.

As the geography of cultural activity shifts, so too do the roles and responsibilities of museums. Our aim is to respond to the art being produced across the world and to connect to a wider network of new institutions and visual art organisations. New forms of cultural dialogue and international exchange are emerging, involving artists, institutions and audiences, and between cities, regions, and continents.

Globalisation has changed the ways in which art is produced, presented and collected, and the terms by which it is understood. As a collecting institution with a contemporary perspective, we are responding not only to the vision and activity of individual artists, but also to the expanding audience for art—the demand for co-production and participation, and access to knowledge. Gradually we are connecting our curators, educators and collection with programmes, institutions and audiences in many parts of the world. Tate Modern’s retrospective of the Brazilian artist Mira Schendel, for example, was co-curated and co-produced with Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, resulting in a more nuanced exhibition than one curated by Tate alone, addressing the fact that Schendel is a household name in Brazil, with audiences to match, but comparatively unknown in Britain.

Tate has been broadening the geographical scope of its international collection since the early 2000s. This has involved building expertise within the curatorial team and with associates as well as establishing a network of acquisition committees to support this expansion. Such committees help us build knowledge and relationships within areas that were previously considered beyond our remit.

We now have seven regionally focused acquisition committees, for Latin America, North America, the Asia Pacific region, the Middle East and North Africa, Africa, South Asia, and Russia and Eastern Europe. Our strategy is to build an integrated collection, telling complex histories around the over-arching theme of modernities, rather than through separate regional histories. As a result we have been able to broaden the range of work on display at all Tate galleries, so as to create displays of contemporary “global” art and displays about the historic avant-gardes and their legacies.

This engagement is not merely the process of collecting objects but is the result of a commitment to research. The Tate Research Centre: Asia-Pacific, launched in October 2012 with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has established an intellectual hub for Tate’s activities in that region, and strengthened Tate’s network of institutions and individuals in Asia and beyond. The centre’s focus is on Modern and contemporary art in China, Japan and Korea, and will eventually broaden to the wider regions of East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

When the new Tate Modern opens, its programme, including our new display and performance area, the Tanks, will more fully express an expanded understanding of art within a global context, and do so in a way that creates the greatest possible synergy with the collection, displays and learning. In this way we can respond creatively to the cultural diversity of the UK, and establish links with world audiences.

Over the past year, several exhibitions at Tate Modern signalled this shift: the survey of the work of the Lebanese painter and sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair; a retrospective exhibition of the Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi; and the presentation of Meschac Gaba’s installation entitled Museum of Contemporary African Art.

Through our partnership with Oman, we are developing a training programme for staff at the new National Museum in Muscat, focused on visitor services, collection management, museum management and learning. We have also established a long-term partnership with the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, with a number of major collaborative projects under development in the fields of exhibitions, learning, research, and conservation. Similar partnerships will be explored elsewhere in the world, for example in Africa, and this will shape our future programme. Already Guaranty Trust Bank’s partnership with Tate supports a dedicated curatorial post focusing on African art, currently held by Elvira Dyangani Ose, with an acquisition fund to help Tate enhance its holdings of work by African artists and an ambitious forward programme.

The world also comes to us: about 40% of Tate website visitors are from outside the UK, and this rises to 69% for Facebook and 70% for Twitter. Digital information places us in a truly global arena, as the continued growth of Tate’s BP Art Exchange programme demonstrates. Connecting artists, students and art organisations around the world in an online exchange of ideas and art, the programme has so far gained over 4,250 individual participants in 39 countries (along with 160 schools and 27 museums or galleries) since its inception in September 2013, with established partnerships in Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Brazil, Mexico, China, and South Korea.  

Museum websites are platforms that make our collections, galleries and other activities more accessible and visually engaging. Now we can be even more radical in our approach, and think differently about our mission to increase understanding and enjoyment of art for a worldwide audience. This can generate cross-cultural perspectives on our respective collections and programmes, and will achieve our overarching aim to collaborate in the production and sharing of knowledge about art.

In the 19th century, when the great British museum collections began to be formed, works brought from abroad were collected as a way of presenting and developing knowledge primarily for a British audience. That is not how we see our mission today. We still live by trade, but now the trade is in ideas, and we have as much to learn as we have to give. A Little Britain would be a mean place—Great Britain will only flourish if we keep our eyes and minds open to the rest of the world. That is why we see Tate as not just a national, but as a truly international institution.

• Nicholas Serota is director of the Tate

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Tate’s new worldwide web'