May 2000

Curator interview: Tate Modern's thematic hang

An exclusive interview with The Art Newspaper about the closely guarded secret: the thinking behind how the Tate Modern has arranged its art

Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge

When Britain’s new gallery of Modern art opens on 11 May, it is not only the new building that will be subjected to close scrutiny. Tate Modern also presents the Tate’s collections in a radical new format. Its curators have rejected a chronological or movement-based layout in order to display the gallery’s twentieth-century holdings grouped around four main themes: “Still-Life/Matter/Environment”, “Still-Life/Object/ Real Life”, “History/Memory/Society”, “Nude/Action/Body”. The three curators responsible for this new look—Tate Modern director Lars Nittve, head of exhibitions and displays Iwona Blazwick, and Tate Modern senior curator Frances Morris—talked exclusively to The Art Newspaper.

The Art Newspaper: The policy of a thematic hang is one that has also been taken up, for example, by the Pompidou, MoMA in New York and the Essl Collection in Vienna. Do you see yourself as part of a wider tendency?

Lars Nittve: I think what we’re doing is coinciding with new ways of looking at, and thinking about, history and, of course, acknowledging—as I think almost everyone who now works in our field does—that there isn’t one, single, true story of Modern art; that there are multiple stories. As a gallery we have to underline this as a fact.

There isn’t one, single, true story of Modern art

Frances Morris: We had almost a year from idea to final acceptance, and during that year we worked with the collections curators (three or four art historians who know the collection very well) to explore the ramifications of each single genre. What we came up with was an incredibly rich menu of possibilities and then we looked at that in relation to the spaces and in terms of the practicalities. Of course, it gets incredibly complex at this stage, but we did have a year to think it through in terms of whether the works from the collection could support the kinds of displays we wanted to do—and, of course, there are a whole list of displays that we can’t do because we don’t have the works in the collection.

You’ve organised the collection according to four themes that reflect and expand the art-historical categories of still-life, landscape, the human figure (encompassing portraiture and the nude), the historic narrative and allegory. What was the rationale behind this selection?

Frances Morris: We very consciously chose a framework that pre-dated Modernism because what we wanted to show was a beginning and not an end. Because linear art histories have end points, you get a kind of flattening and narrowing and it’s very easy to make everything look as if it’s going towards a destination. So we wanted to show a beginning point and then, within each suite of rooms, allow a kind of expanded field to unfold through a number of different types of display.

Iwona Blazwick: The main problem with a linear chronology is that it’s evolutionary and it tends to present the twentieth century as a series of movements, each one evolving in response to the other, as if one stops and then the next starts, so there’s no sense of synchronous practises going on. Also, because a linear model tends to group into these “isms” and movements, it’s very difficult to take account of certain individual practises such as, say, Francis Bacon, or things which stand outside the modernist story.

On level three the “Landscape” and the “Still-Life” sections are linked by an Anthony Caro room; on level 5, Bruce Nauman provides the transition between the “History” and “Body” suites. Does this mean that these categories are moveable feasts?

Frances Morris: It’s part of seeing the genres as coat pegs, as frameworks for interpretation rather than as things that restrict interpretation.

Iwona Blazwick: We’re using these joiner spaces to say that we don’t want these categories to be definitive. Abstract Expressionism, for example, turns up in “Landscape/Matter/Environment” because of the idea of perception and the colour field and opticality, but we had also discussed putting it in “History/Memory/Society” in terms of it having been co-opted into the politics of the Cold War.

Frances Morris: There are a number of artists who pop up in different suites, or different rooms. Jackson Pollock opens in both contexts, in the landscape suite and also in the body, in a room devoted to automatism.

How often will the displays change?

Frances Morris: We’re working on our schedule at the moment but the idea is that the thematic structure will be in place for between three and five years. Then within the four sections there are various different types of display: the monographics, the themes that span the century and some documentary displays; and all these will move on to a number of different cycles so that the monographic displays devoted to the less important figures and/or living artists will probably change every six months or so, and those changes will alter the character and emphasis of each suite.

What about the visitor who wants to re-visit a few particular works?

Frances Morris: The cornerstone giants like Rothko, Duchamp and Beuys will be up for much longer, not just because they are the giants of the century, but also because they are the giants of our collection, and they are what people come back to, and want to see. But they might re-appear in a new configuration or maybe in a new suite—we open with a pairing of Duchamp and Picabia, but we might well do, say, Duchamp and Hamilton. So these artists will not go away but be present in a different guise.

Lars Nittve: Because we don’t need to rotate the collection to such an extent we can show much more at any given time. So to a large extent you will be able to go and re visit your friends, and perhaps rediscover them in a different framework.

Critics of a thematic hang either believe that it dumbs down the art it presents, or they feel that the thematic telling of multiple stories runs the risk of confusing a non-specialist audience.

Frances Morris: I think what’s interesting is that a lot of attacks on thematic hangs come from the basis that we need chronology, we need history. But when you walk through our displays, or even plot them on paper, you see that what they are doing is opening up history, they’re certainly not dispensing with it. What they’re doing is informing you about moments in time; it’s not a levelling off of time.

In the past there was a monolithic view of either the philistine or the specialist and I think now there is a recognition that there are many publics

Iwona Blazwick: In the past there was a monolithic view of either the philistine or the specialist and I think now there is a recognition that there are many publics. There’s also the idea of accountability: who is it for? whom are we addressing? All of this fractures the authoritarian hierarchical façade of the museum.

Lars Nittve: If you look back over the years, not especially in Britain but on the continent, there have been thematic hangs and non-chronological hangs that have been extremely confusing, where you see there’s only a poetic vision in the mind of that curator who has brought these works together. Then there are other examples which have turned out to be simple one-liners and spectacle. I have been critical of a fair number of thematic displays that I’ve seen over the years and I would only like to be judged on what we are doing.

When you create a display, what you’re trying to do is to create a context which helps the fairly uninformed visitor to answer some questions, and one of the basic questions is, when they are standing in front of this particular painting: “Why does it look the way it does? Why did the artist choose to do it this way?” And the core explanation in a chronological hang is, because all the other artists were doing it at the same time.

What we can argue is that this may be partly true, but they may also be reacting to what an artist did 100 years ago, or to what younger artists are doing at the same time. There are many good reasons why artists are doing what they are doing, and we are trying to give equally good—or in some cases even better—models for understanding this.

So how do you communicate this complexity without muddling people?

Lars Nittve: I think what’s really crucial when you break the traditional pattern is that you try to do it in as crystallised a way as possible. I think that our model is very simple and that’s going to be helpful. What struck me quite late in the process was that when you break the long linear chronology you get a chance to create moments of depth where you can bring together almost a small retrospective of an artist in one room; you can rest a bit before you move on.

Frances Morris: And forget about themes for a while. Francis Bacon has a whole room with works spanning his career; so does Bridget Riley. There are two or three rooms of that type in each suite which actually changes the pace of your visit as well. The Beuys room is almost like walking into the workshop: there’s “The end of the twentieth century”; there’s an extraordinary loan piece, “Lightning with stag”, which has forty different elements; and then there are the blackboard, the vitrines, the horns—a whole collection of his energy materials and motifs.

Iwona Blazwick: Often we have to let certain works of art speak for themselves. Monographic displays have got to be among the most pleasurable because you’re completely immersed in a body of work. One of the aims has been to use the actual exhibition display, as well as the texts and so on, as part of the education process. So there’s a moment in History/Memory/Society where you’re bathed in a Dan Flavin and that has to be a purely visceral, optical, physical experience—a vital part always of the experience of going to a museum.

Frances Morris: One of the key bits of information that came out of visitor audits and observing people in museums and exhibitions is that the average visitor (and of course there isn’t an average visitor) spends about forty minutes to an hour in the museum before having a coffee, visiting the bookshop or leaving. You’re asking an awful lot of a visitors to get through four suites or two levels in forty minutes, so there was this idea that we should create a coherent rather than a partial experience within that time.

Your practise of interspersing contemporary work throughout the new hang could be construed as placing too much emphasis on the here and now.

Frances Morris: But then, the contemporary is only tomorrow’s history. As a matter of principle we felt that a coherent experience of a museum of modern art should include both ends of the spectrum, contemporary and historical. One of the things that influenced our thinking was the way in which a number of artists we consulted—we went out to a wide consultation at quite an early stage—were passionate about the idea that our displays should in some way reflect the way that artists work. And artists simply don’t see themselves as “contemporary”; they pick and mix. That’s not to say we’ve got a pick-and-mix display, but the opportunity to show artists who really mediate the past continuously and who continuously update it, so that for them, the past is ever present, is a key breakthrough for us. Works of art from all periods are time travellers. They exist at the moment they were born and they continue to exist as their context changes.

Lars Nittve: There aren’t that many direct juxtapositions of historical and contemporary works and when there are, they are extremely carefully chosen. It’s more that you can come from one room which has one atmosphere and one character into another which is more contemporary. The whole ethos of the museum is to try to avoid hierarchy between contemporary art and what is seen as historic and classical modernism. We want to acknowledge that we have contemporary criteria for what we’re doing because our audience lives here and now, and so it’s contemporary life that is our starting point.

I also feel passionately that we have to provide experiences and juxtapositions, not only for people who walk in with no prior knowledge, but also for the more specialist visitor

Frances Morris: What’s interesting is not just the question, “Will granny mind that we’ve got a room full of contemporary?”, but also, “Will our young audience mind that we’ve got a room full of Stanley Spencer?”. With a 1940s Resurrection piece which we’ve installed it is almost as if it were an installation piece?

I also feel passionately that we have to provide experiences and juxtapositions, not only for people who walk in with no prior knowledge, but also for the more specialist visitor. For example, there’s a display called “The naked and the nude”, which looks at a primarily male tradition of depicting naked women by men, for the delectation of other men, but then the next room is small, it’s black, it’s intense and it’s Sam Taylor-Wood’s “Brontosaurus”. That placing says a great deal about both displays. We don’t have very strong holdings of important women artists from early in the twentieth century, and there aren’t very many important or radical representations of the naked male in early twentieth-century art, particularly by women. So what we’re doing isn’t about hiding deficiencies in the collection but actually working with what we’ve got.

In terms of contemporary British art, would you see your role as being more affirmative, while Tate Britain has the freedom to be more experimental and risky?

Iwona Blazwick: We’ve got two phases: first of all, we get the building open and we get the collection up, but then, in January 2001, we kick off with our temporary exhibitions programme and that really sets us moving in terms of our relationship to contemporary art, a more dynamic relationship between the temporary exhibitions and the collection, and amplifying the whole idea of how we look at the past.

Lars Nittve: I don’t really think about our programme of contemporary art in relationship to what Tate Britain is doing. I think we are trying to work at two tempos: to be, on the one hand, this amazing museum of modern art, really solid, really well researched, and working on these fantastic exhibitions; but also trying to think like a small Kunsthalle, like a really experimental space that will be very flexible and fit small and large experimental projects and actually to have a streak of counterculture within this big national institution.

The people behind the museum

Nick Serota , director, Tate

Track record: 1970-73 Exhibition organiser, Arts Council; 1973-76 director, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford; 1976-78 director, Whitechapel Art Gallery; 1988 director, Tate Gallery

Role: Capo di Tutti Capi, head of the “federation” of four Tate sites, as well as central services such as conservation, collection, library, personnel, finance, development and communication. Ensures that all elements of Tate move in the same direction and that resources are appropriately divided between them. Represents the Tate to the outer world. Has played a central role in every aspect of Tate Modern and after museum opens plans to work as a curator in his own right. Co-curating a Donald Judd retrospective with Iwona Blazwick for 2002.

Lars Nittve, director, Tate Modern

Track record: includes 1986-89 senior curator, Moderna Museet Stockholm; 1990-95 founding director, Rooseum, Centre for Contemporary Art, Malmo; 1995-97 director, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen; 1997 Turner Prize juror

Role: Oversees and has final responsibility for the running and profile of Tate Modern, the exhibition programme and displays; and all Tate Modern’s departments: education and interpretation, fundraising, press or curatorial. “We’re trying to double code ourselves and to be on the one hand this amazing museum of modern art and also to try and build in the ethos of a small Kunsthalle with a quick, experimental way of working.”

Iwona Blazwick, head of exhibitions and display, Tate Modern

Track record: includes 1987-93 Director of Exhibitions, ICA London; 1993-97 comissioning editor, Phaidon Press; 1993 Turner Prize juror

Role: Head of the curatorial department, responsible for the overseeing the shape of Tate Modern’s programme—both the collection and temporary exhibitions—working closely with education and interpretation departments. “There are three strands: there’s collections; there are contemporary exhibitions and then there are commissions. We’re looking to invite artists to work with the collections and I’m interested in cross-programming, to use historic exhibitions to generate audiences and interest in contemporary work.”

Frances Morris, senior curator, Tate Modern

Track record: includes 1985-87 exhibitions organiser, Arnolfini Gallery Bristol; 1987-97, curator Modern Collection, Tate Gallery; 1997 curator, Tate Modern.

Role: Curator and co-ordinator of the Tate Modern opening display; collaborating with Richard Flood on Arte Povera show for Summer 2001.

Emma Dexter, Curator, Tate Modern

Track record: includes 1987-90 director, Chisenhale Gallery, London; 1990-92 deputy director of exhibitions, ICA; 1992-99 director of exhibitions, ICA

Role: Currently working on London in the 90s section of “Century city” exhibition for 2001; curating exhibition of contemporary still-life for summer 2001.

Donna De Salvo, curator, Tate Modern

Track record: includes 1981-86 curator, Dia Art Foundation, New York; 1987-91 independent curator; 1990-91 adjunct curator, Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; 1991-95 Robert Lehmann curator, The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; 1995-February 2000 curator at large, Wexner Centre for the Arts, Ohio State University.

Role: Curating “New York 1970s” section of “Century city”.

Jeremy Lewison, director of collections, Tate

Track record: includes 1977-83 curator Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge; 1983-90 Assistant Keeper, Tate Gallery; 1990-97 Deputy Keeper, Tate Gallery, 1998 director of collections, Tate.

Role: Leads the Tate’s acquisitions and research programmes from 1500 to present day, British and foreign. Heads a team of curators who work on acquisitions, along with suggestions from the four sites, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool, Tate St Ives. “I take forward those suggestions and discuss those with Nick [Serota]—and then he and I make the decision as to what we are going to present to the trustees.”

Future exhibitions at Tate Modern

  • Century City: Art and Culture in the 20th-century Metropolis, January 2001- April 2001: It consists of nine zones: Paris 1905-15; Vienna 1920s; Moscow 1920s; Lagos 1950s-60s; Rio de Janeiro 1950s-60s; Tokyo 1960s-70s; New York 1970s; Bombay 1990s; London 1990s.
  • Arte Povera: Art Without Limits, 1962-72, June-September 2001
  • Unilever Series: Second Commission, Turbine Hall, June-November 2001, artist to be announced
  • Morandi , June-September 2001
  • Contemporary still-life, June-September 2001
  • Surrealism, Sex and Sexuality, September-December 2001: The first major survey of Surrealism in Britain for over twenty years, this show will look at one of the movement’s defining themes: sex in its various manifestations.
  • Katarina Fritsch, September-December 2001: The first major survey of the German artist to be held in the UK
  • Eija-Liisa Ahtila: Finnish Video artist hardly seen in UK.
  • Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "The work of art as time traveller"