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‘It’s a bigger story’: Frances Morris outlines her global vision for Tate Modern

A monumental extension and a shake-up of the museum’s displays will see more international names, live art and female artists

The appointment of Frances Morris as Tate Modern’s new director in January was greeted with near-unanimous approval. Unlike her three predecessors, Morris is a Tate insider who joined as a curator in the Modern collection in 1988, the same year as the Tate museums’ director Nicholas Serota. She may have a low public profile, but she is widely respected throughout the art world—especially by artists—and behind the scenes has already done much to expand and define the Tate we see today.

Morris was instrumental in devising and delivering Tate Modern’s controversial and hugely influential thematic inaugural collection displays in 2000. For the past ten years as director of the collection for international art, she has been responsible for building and extending the global reach of Tate’s collection in all media, much of which is now installed throughout the new Tate Modern, which opens on 17 June.

Morris is also a highly respected curator with shows including the groundbreaking 1995 Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century (co-organised with the late Stuart Morgan); Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972 (2001) and major surveys of Louise Bourgeois (2007), Yayoi Kusama (2012) and Agnes Martin (2015). Next summer, she will organise an exhibition of work by Alberto Giacometti with Catherine Grenier. Just two weeks into her new post, Morris spoke to us about her vision for the future.

The Art Newspaper: The opening of Switch House, the £260m ten-storey extension designed by Herzog & de Meuron, marks a whole new Tate Modern, with a complete rehang across both buildings. What are the major changes?

Frances Morris: The significant shift is to a much more international picture. Great art is now being made all over the world and since 2000, we’ve got major new acquisitions of key artists that come from Rio, Bangalore, Johannesburg, Zagreb and much more. The work is very diverse and there’s a real shift from a dominant centre to multiple interconnected centres. Although 75% of the work now on show is new, it’s not all contemporary. The collection was originally built according to a dominant art history which we are very familiar with, but the real story is a much bigger one, because that dominant story left out a lot of places and a lot of practices and a lot of women artists. We haven’t rewritten the history but we are asking questions about the history and plotting co-ordinates. It’s a bigger story.

When you organised the first rehang of the Tate Modern in 2000, it broke with chronology to be grouped around a number of genre-based themes. How are you organising the collections now?

In the Boiler House [Tate Modern’s original building], we’re offering four different approaches. They are not themes but more like a context in which to view Modern art from 1900 to the present. One looks at the way artists use materials, from the ready-made to experimental painting; another at the way artists work in the studio space; the third looks at the relationship between artists and society and the fourth looks at the relationship between artists, media and communication networks. There is a high preponderance of monographic rooms, which are about framing great works of art; so there will be new acquisitions, but all the great familiar icons, too. It’s very much old friends and new, with the new friends being both contemporary and key Modernist works from a non-Western origin.

What about everyone’s favourites? The Picassos, the Rothkos? The Snail (1953) by Henri Matisse?

The traditional strongholds or anchor points of the collection are very visible, but they are not shown as a historical core that the rest wraps around as a periphery. I think that’s the big shift: it really is about rethinking the old core and shifting the focus. The bigger history and the fact that contemporary practice is underpinned by a much more connected history than has been written about in the books is exciting.

How does all this connect with the new building?

There’s a slight shift in gear because the Switch House is really the story of now. It looks at the 1960s to the present and the Tanks [the underground performance space] are its roots, literally its live art roots. To a degree, the whole building is constructed around narratives that explain the history of contemporary live and interactive practice. Since I’ve been working on building the collection, its four big stories are: the collecting and plotting the history of live art; broadening of the international remit both in contemporary and Modern art; collecting film and new media; and, very importantly, gender. These are the stories that this new building will tell, which then feed back into the bigger stories in the Boiler House.

Will you be continuing to organise exhibitions in your new role?

Once I sort out the furniture, I would love to go on curating and would like always to have one project on the go. In fact I already have: I’m doing a big Giacometti exhibition next summer with Catherine Grenier.

A major part of your role is now fundraising. It’s now intrinsic to any museum director’s—or indeed curator’s—job.

I love it! I can’t tell you how gratifying it is when somebody says, “I’m going to give you £100,000!” In a sense, I’m never really not fundraising: you are out talking to people and always alive to the possibilities of who you might want to bring on board. Over ten years with colleagues, I have recruited almost 300 patrons to support the acquisition committees. People who give to art are rather special people—they are very rare. One thing I haven’t done much of is corporate fundraising, but I have an appetite for it and the more mixed the economy, the greater the degree of independence.

Does it pose problems having to be so reliant on donations in order to grow the Tate’s collection?

People tend to think that we are sitting here and the boxes arrive—but actually it’s rare that we are offered something out of the blue. We are very strategic and always have a clear idea of what we can do in terms of money and what we want to achieve in relationship to purchases and gifts. The targets obviously include collectors, people with deep pockets, dealers and artists. Often we will construct an acquisition or group of acquisitions around a number of those. We don’t dither but we don’t just go shopping. We deliberate and we research.

You have been at the Tate for nearly three decades and could have applied for the Tate Modern director post a couple of times in the past. Why now?

On the previous occasions when I could have gone for it, I was extremely wrapped up in what I was doing. I know a lot of directors who just want to be directors but I never wanted power for the sake of it. I’ve always been very project-focused and when Vicente [Todolí, Tate Modern’s second director] came I’d just taken on displays, which I adored, and then when he left I’d just got the strategy going to build up the collection, so again it felt like I had my world to deliver. But when Chris [Dercon]’s resignation was announced I thought, “I don’t want to work for another director!” I’d spent ten years building this collection and now I want to work with it. I’m interested in the bigger picture. I’m very bound up in my museum, I want to make it work, I want to defend it and be an advocate for it.  

Chris Dercon was a very conspicuous public figure. Do you see yourself stepping into the spotlight?

I think I could be an advocate for certain important things, but I don’t think I’ll do the lecture circuit—people have different styles. What is really important for Tate Modern now, and the Tate, is a little bit of sorting out the house. All these changes are a huge challenge for the team. There are lots of processes that we are going to be doing for the first time and I want to be around to help shape those and to troubleshoot. So though I will miss the travelling a little bit, I am going to try and be a bit more of a stay-at-home director for the time being.