PRINT October 1995


Richard Flood talks with Nicholas Serota

IT WILL BE CALLED THE TATE GALLERY of Modern Art, and it is scheduled to open at the beginning of the new millennium. The gallery will be housed in an extraordinary postwar relic, an oil-fired power station on the South Bank of the Thames, directly across from St. Paul’s Cathedral. The building, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1947, was completed in 1963; by then its austere, rather Gothic-Deco facade was well out of architectural fashion. Perhaps because it was already esthetically obsolete at birth, the building was denied placement on the architectural registry. It is, nonetheless, a seductively fascistic presence on the insistently banal skyline of the South Bank.

The dominant force behind the creation of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art is Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, current home to what the museum’s subhead calls “The National Collections of British and Modern Art in London, Liverpool and St. Ives.” The selection of an architect to implement Serota’s vision was initiated by an open competition that netted some 150 entries from throughout Europe, the United States, and Japan. From there, 13 firms were shortlisted; of these, 6 were asked to prepare extended proposals. In January 1995 the jury, headed by Sir Simon Hornby, selected Herzog & de Meuron, a Basel, Switzerland–based firm. What distinguishes the winning proposal is the seeming simplicity with which it acknowledges the power of the building and exploits its existing structure rather than subverts the brutal grace of its daunting volume.

I sat down with Serota in his Millbank office this past May to discuss the next stage of the project. For Serota, the challenge now is to raise the estimated £100 million (a hopeful combination of proceeds from the National Lottery and private fundraising) required to see the project through to completion. In doing so, he will have to address key questions facing the Western museum system at the dawn of the 21st century—from positioning the hierarchy of artistic movements within the 20th century to defining new relationships with both the public constituency and the private sector.

Richard Flood

RICHARD FLOOD: What vision has driven you to feel you need to create a museum of modern art in London at this moment?

NICHOLAS SEROTA: The Tate grew out of being a national gallery of British art; international art was grafted onto it only in the 1920s. So there’s always been the sense of a nest in which international art is the cuckoo, and that the cuckoo would eventually have to be pushed out of the nest. Also London, and indeed Britain, has long lacked a place where discussion of the present and of the recent past can be the principal focus. We want to focus on the present. How does art in Britain now relate to what’s happening abroad?

RF: When you started thinking about fulfilling that vision, what kind of facility did you have in mind? What led you to the building you chose?

NS: We decided that there was insufficient space on the Tate’s Millbank site to provide the kind of museum that we envisaged. We looked at other possible sites in the city. We knew that it would have to be a landmark site—that it couldn’t be tucked away in some corner of the city that would make it difficult for people to find. There are a limited number of large vacant sites in the center of London, so we fairly quickly honed our choice to three or four possible options. Bankside was the only one that involved transforming an existing building. The others all involved a new build, and there was a long debate about which course to take. In the end we chose Bankside, for two principal reasons: one, it offers us more space than any other site; and two, it gives us an opportunity to create a richer variety of spaces and of qualities of finish than would be possible in an entirely new building.

RF: If you’d gone for a new build, would the architects who were asked to submit proposals have been the same ones, or would that have demanded a different thinking about the space?

NS: We didn’t invite anyone to submit. We held an open international competition based on the Bankside site. There were some architects who might have put in for a new build but didn’t put in for Bankside. Equally, however, it was slightly surprising to us that such a starry list of people—from Europe, principally, but also America and Japan—did ask to be considered for what many perceived as nothing more than a conversion job. And as we worked through the scheme, it became more and more clear that it was going to have to be much more than a conversion; it was a thorough transformation of the building.

RF: Did you have ideals that you wanted realized—preexisting ideas of room scale, number of galleries, flexibility of space?

NS: We have a predisposition toward creating spaces of a variety of sizes and shapes, and we wish to work not on the enfilade or sequential system of gallery layout but on a matrix that allows visitors to make choices as they move around the building. We set certain rules: gallery ceilings should not be lower than four meters, and we wanted as many galleries as possible with natural light, though we recognized that some galleries would not primarily be lit that way. We wanted to provide a variety of rooms in which different kinds of art could be seen to advantage—both highly finished spaces and raw spaces rather than flexible space.

RF: Judging from the exhibition you mounted here of the competition entries, Herzog and de Meuron seem to be the only team that actually fulfilled all of those conditions.

NS: They’re good listeners, and they’ve also worked quite closely with the current and the immediately preceding generation of artists. That became evident not only in the way they went about making a proposal, but also in the way they talked about the building.

RF: It’s a very modest design on the one hand, yet it’s great theater as well.

NS: It is quite reticent in some respects, although Herzog and de Meuron’s buildings certainly aren’t lacking in personality, or character, or strength. They work on a scale, or with a sense of scale, that allows their language and their ideas to come through powerfully without overwhelming. In the case of an art museum, what they’re not overwhelming is the art.

RF: What material will go to Bankside—does all of the 20th-century material leave? Does a significant part of the 20th-century British material stay at the current facility while the international material leaves? It must be a tricky call.

NS: No, the international goes. That’s quite clear. And a portion of the British 20th-century material goes to join it. It won’t be a fixed proportion, because we’ll continue to show 20th-century British art here. My guess is that you’ll come to the Tate building at Millbank and see a panorama of British art, including the internationally recognized figures as well as less-known artists. At Bankside you’ll see a display that will include British artists—not always the best known. There’ll be some surprises.

RF: Would there be a need to balance that by showing, say, a Swiss artist who might not be a primary contender for most people’s crown of laurels?

NS: In recent years the collections of many of the major museums of contemporary art across Europe and America have begun to become more focused on particular areas and particular artists. There’s less of a sense that one has to buy one of everyone, less of a sense that there’s a given history that has to be represented.

RF: There’s now the reality of the building, or a plan for one. Will your curatorial and educational staff still work out of Millbank? Or will there be new thinking about what kind of talent might be appropriate over there?

NS: We’re developing our thoughts about how we’ll run Bankside. The premise is that curatorial and some other functions will still be run out of Millbank. But clearly there’ll have to be some dedicated local services at both Bankside and Millbank. In one sense we shall slightly detach the main Tate organization from either Millbank or Bankside. A curatorial research team will provide displays and scholarship for both sites, and there’ll be a local team based at each site.

RF: So it will involve an enlargement of staff. How many Tate curators are currently dedicated to art of this century?

NS: I can never remember the precise number, and it depends on what level you’re talking about. But there are, I suppose, six or eight people who work on the art of this century. We’re almost certainly going to need to make appointments. Obviously there are plenty of good people in Britain, but I imagine this will also be an opportunity for us to consider bringing in people from elsewhere in Europe and possibly from America, Australia, or wherever. Historically, the Tate hasn’t been especially good at bringing people in from outside. I hope we’ll bring people to work here who have a different kind of experience that they can share with us.

RF: Does it affect your acquisitions patterns to know you’ll have this space for international material across the river?

NS: The creation of the new gallery is obviously a powerful incentive for us to look carefully at what we have and to think about ways of strengthening the collection, in both the historical and the contemporary fields. To be effective in both places we’ll need to raise additional funds. That’s quite clear.

RF: Are there target areas of the collection that you think you need to concentrate on?

NS: There are moves we could undertake that would make a significant difference to the pre-1960 collection. Rounding out the representation of a limited number of artists—including Bonnard, aspects of Matisse and Picasso, pre- and interwar German art, postwar Paris and New York—would give us a density, depth, and weight that the collection doesn’t quite have in those areas. Beyond that, most of our attention has to go to 1960 onward. The bottom line in one sense is resources, but the principal consideration is putting the institution in a position where it’s contributing to the map of the last 30 or 40 years—alongside the Pompidou, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and other institutions around the world.

RF: Does your concept of filling out that period involve any particular strength or bias?

NS: The Tate collection has certain areas of strength in those decades: Minimalism, arte povera, and a small but strong collection of German art of the last 25 years. These are areas on which we’ll build.

RF: How far forward would you take, say; postwar German art?

NS: To the present.

RF: Would that mean fewer resources for what seems to be such an interesting situation here in Britain now? Meanwhile, what had seemed a very positive situation in Germany gives every appearance of being quite enervated.

NS: I don’t think collections of this kind can be “archaeological.” Just because we collect German art of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, we don’t necessarily have to collect German art of the ’90s. Our focus of interest necessarily shifts from place to place. In the ’50s, perhaps unfortunately, the Tate’s interest was still focused on Paris, when it might have looked to New York. The danger of course is that we’ll be looking at Germany when we should be looking at Britain. You’re quite right to say there’s a great deal of activity here at present, and one of the issues at the Tate will be how it should collect and show that art in an international context.

RF: I think you can go in any of at least five different directions and come up with British artists under 40 who have attracted somebody’s attention. There’s a luxury of choices, but it’s also a luxury to think you can wait to find out who pans out, or appears as if they will. In terms of their own stability within the culture, and their own careers, for the Tate to move in and collect them would be a consummation devoutly to be wished by these artists. Is that less of an obligation with young artists from other countries?

NS: If we have that obligation at all, we have it to artists who are working here rather than elsewhere. The Tate has always collected British art in greater depth than it collects art from other countries. We have to ensure that we have some bright curators and advisers at the Tate who are closely in touch with developments. One of the reasons for creating the Art Now space at Millbank (a new gallery for the exhibition of work by younger international artists) is to encourage curators to test their ideas in a broader way, rather than simply make recommendations about particular acquisitions.

RF: Except there you’re already caught in a bind, regardless of what’s done: I’ve heard people say about this kind of museum space innumerable times, All right, now they have this space, but it’s a ghetto. That, for example, is the case with the Project Space at the Museum of Modern Art. I daresay most of those who are calling it a ghetto would be happy to move in, but nonetheless the space has this aura.

NS: You can talk about it as a ghetto or you can see it as a bridgehead. If we’re intelligent, it will simply be one way in which newer art can be shown at the Tate. And it is only one way.

RF: And another way might be?

NS: Shows like “Rites of Passage,” the exhibition that Frances Morris and Stuart Morgan put together this past summer. Or the Tate acquiring work directly, without necessarily having shown it in one of its own galleries.

RF: Would the Tate ever commission?

NS: Historically the Tate hasn’t commissioned. But we’ve moved quite close to it. And we’ll move closer in giving artists opportunities to work in the Art Now space. If the result is something that we feel has a place in the collection, then yes, we will acquire it.

RF: How many exhibitions a year will be installed in Art Now?

NS: Five or six.

RF: I see that Marc Quinn’s been announced as the artist for the second show there, after Matthew Barney. Compared to his peers, Quinn seems to be turning toward a more traditional moment in British sculpture. This would seem to be a show that would reinforce some people’s doubts about the intent of the space, and at the same time reassure those who want continuity in their culture.

NS: The choice is the choice of the curators of the space, Sean Rainbird and Frances Morris. It’s important that we should back their choices. We can’t work by committee; someone has to have the commitment and passion to do a show. The mandate of the Art Now space is to show new bodies of work.

RF: Do you find it annoying when younger artists talk about a sanitizing process that takes over when the Tate brings in their work? The kind of seduction and repulsion that the younger community seems to feel—is that an issue inside the institution? Do you ask, All right, how do we talk to these young makers of art, how do we engage them in dialogue? Do they have a presence in an advisory system here?

NS: The only formal advisory system we have here is the board of trustees. The Tate is unusual in having one quarter of its board made up of artists—currently Richard Deacon, Michael Craig Martin, and Christopher LeBrun. The board is appointed by the prime minister, which is probably one way of sanitizing the whole Tate [laughter]. The other members are in business, collectors, educators, an art historian—not, as in American museums, principally benefactors. The term is five years; it’s occasionally renewed, but not usually.

That’s one route through which younger artists have a voice, through artists of a slightly older generation. The other means is by myself and the curators keeping our eyes and ears open and being in the right places. I think it’s a perennial problem for a big institution to make sure that it has a curatorial team that is in the right places.

RF: How does one encourage that? It’s not so easy.

NS: You’ve been on both sides of the fence, and you know it’s a combination of stick and carrot.

RF: This city in particular is such a—

NS: It’s incredibly fragmented. It's sometimes easier to take a view from outside than from within.

RF: Well, yes and no. As an outsider you can stand on the shoulders of giants or dwarves. You hope you hit the giants, but it can go just as wrong as it can go right. It’s a real question how an institution activates its curators, when presumably they all have jobs that keep them quite occupied within the context they’re in. They might not necessarily have come into the arrangement to be wandering around with a lantern looking for the next honest artist. As they defend fixed ideas, people can slowly turn into the enemy within the institution.

NS: Again, it’s the problem faced by large institutions of this kind, with a full-time permanent staff. Some institutions have a system of rolling tenure, but I don’t think we need that. It may be, though, that we should be moving to a system where we have a larger number of people contributing curatorial ideas and not limit ourselves to those who are here full-time. The danger is that you end up with a full-time staff of administrators, and with a freelance curatorial firepower that has no sense of loyalty to the institution and no sense of building a collection, as opposed to simply picking individual works and supporting individual artists through exhibitions.

RF: Have there been other situations recently where someone like Stuart Morgan was brought in essentially to coauthor a show?

NS: The history of contemporary survey shows here has not been entirely happy. You have to go back to the mid ’60s, when the Tate did a show called “54 64,” to find a really significant contemporary show other than a one-person exhibition. In the early ’70s, Michael Compton, a curator who gained significant international respect, did one or two shows, but they were principally smaller-scaled ventures. There has never been a moment when the Tate has been able to make a really important show that set a new agenda or opened up an area of discussion. It also failed to do so in the ’80s.

We’re now in the ’90s, and I think Stuart’s involvement is a recognition for a critic who has been working in this city for 15 years or more and who has had relatively few opportunities to make exhibitions here. The aim was to use his knowledge to put across a point of view to a wider audience. He’s no spring chicken, he’s been around, and an institution like the Tate should be using him.

RF: Did you make the invitation to Stuart or did he approach you?

NS: There was a decision to put together a show that would cover certain territory, and that the in-house curator should be Frances. We then talked about a number of possibilities if we were going to bring someone else in from the outside, and it became clear almost immediately that we should try to persuade Stuart to work with us.

RF: But it is on some level like raising a true asp to a marble breast. To his credit, Stuart has stood staunchly behind British artmaking at moments when everyone else was turning away from it, and he has always had some of the most interesting takes on artistic productivity as anyone I know. Yet at the same time I think he’s in many ways a dangerous player for an institution to embrace, insofar as he is so cantankerously antiestablishment. I also think that while Stuart’s mood about society at this moment is very interesting, he’s certainly not someone who has a lot of reasons to be optimistic about this moment in time.

NS: I don’t think many of us have a reason to be optimistic about this moment in time. If an institution like the Tate is going to be more than just a place that entertains tourists and reinforces people’s preconceptions, we have to take risks. These have to be calculated risks; one has to understand what the downside could be. But I don’t think we’re here to represent society as entirely happy, optimistic about the future, or particularly at peace with itself. If that disquiet is being expressed, we have a responsibility to show it.

RF: Do you feel an obligation to safety-net the public to some degree? How far do you think the public can be taken?

NS: If we’re going to show them things that will disturb them, we have to be responsible about warning them. They shouldn’t expect to come in and see Matisse and then stumble across something that really disconcerts them. We are a big public museum, a big public space, and one has to recognize that we are also largely funded by the public—by the taxpayer.

I think, though, that in a progressive society the taxpayer expects an institution of this kind to reflect society’s difficulties as well as its more pleasant aspects. Working carefully, we have to try to find a way of not shielding people, not cutting them off from those things that do disturb, do disconcert, do cause anxiety.

RF: Can you conceive of a work of art to which you would feel an obligation to say, I don’t think so?

NS: It’s not a hypothetical question. I’m sure we would have difficulties in presenting certain artworks in the Tate’s front hall.

RF: At the Walker, I’m caught in a funny situation with the Chapman brothers: where in an exhibition do I want to put 12 interfucking mutant children—on the floor of the gallery? Behind a curtain with a sign? Would that change what it is? What is my mandate from the community I serve? It’s a question that’s increasingly going to be hitting everybody—not a new question certainly, it could once have been Courbet, but at certain moments artworks emerge that test the ability of progressive taxpayers within the culture in a way that they truly, under the best of circumstances, don’t like.

NS: What are you going to do?

RF: I’m having a series of conversations. I stated my case early, so now I’m having to act as my own advocate at a meeting with the Chapmans to clarify what it was that I said initially. My position was, This is who comes to the gallery, this is how the gallery is funded, this is my breaking point. I can take your hand and go this far; beyond this point I can no longer accompany you, and here’s a fallback piece I have. If you’re willing to be in the show, this is the reality of my situation.

NS: I think there’s a choice for the artists involved in a public museum as well as for the curator. They may have to act with a sense of responsibility to your position, just as you respect theirs.

RF: You extend the hand, the hand is clasped in return, and then there’s a compact that both sides work to fulfill. But are there any red-flag arenas of art that you would feel were places you’d just as soon not take your public? The tricky thing about public funding is that museum visitors are basically guests within their own home—people are here because the place is theirs.

NS: Clearly there are red-flag areas. We’re tested in many different ways. Issues to do with sex and with death are now to the fore, and the moral dilemmas they address present problems of a different order from those we faced in the ’70s and ’80s, when we might be simply defending a particular work, like Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, against people who couldn’t regard it as art.

RF: I agree—art’s gone much more into our lives. I think part of this issue is educating the public as to who their children are, which is something I sense a lot of resistance to right now. What about collectors—do you find them more open now in England, or less? Is there anything going on with them that’s either encouraging or discouraging to your interest in looking more carefully at contemporary artists’ work?

NS: Over the last 30 or 40 years the patterns of collecting in Britain, with only one or two notable exceptions, have been very patchy. There has been a fairly consistent pattern of people buying art by younger artists until it reaches a certain price, and then stopping. Having filled their apartments, or having lost interest in that particular generation, they cease to buy. There are very few collectors who move from generation to generation. There are also very few who manage to keep buying within a generation as careers develop.

There is more interest now. Whether it will be sustained, it is too soon to say. I think the creation of a new Tate Gallery at Bankside could be a powerful impetus, because it may generate a sense of confidence in the present, and a sense that art matters to society. Why do people buy art? Partly, of course, because they are interested in the art, the artist, and the ideas, but partly because of other motives—it gives them a place in society. If society doesn’t value contemporary art, then that motive cannot exist.

RF: Where do you stand in your own curatorial interests?

NS: I’m dead!

RF: You’re dead? You must in some way anticipate indulging them.

NS: Of course I do. I’m deeply involved in the gallery’s acquisitions. All recommendations for acquisitions pass through me to the board; I try to take to the board only those works that I’m convinced by, works or artists that I feel strongly should be represented in the collection. On one level my responsibility and my commitment are to stay in touch with what’s happening here and elsewhere, as far as I’m able, given that I have a whole host of other things to do. I have to try to see things and talk to people and just use my experience and intuition.

RF: Can you get to see things with any degree of ease or freedom?

NS: I can’t trawl the studios in New York or even in London the way I used to. I get information through the curators, through artists I respect, and, rather rarely, through key magazines, because it’s usually too late at that point. Principally by talking to people I respect, and then using my judgment.

RF: In the British press you have a critical mass of writers who seem to be running around opposing anything that even implies that the culture is changing. Traditionally the English press really seems to be the enemy of contemporary art. You have one magazine, Frieze, that shows a generation dealing with its own generation, and that’s it. What are your hopes for British criticism and critics?

NS: Well, there are many more of them than there are in New York, in terms of their access to an outlet.

RF: London has a lot of newspapers; in New York it’s really Roberta Smith and Michael Kimmelman at the Times, and Peter Schjeldahl in The Village Voice.

NS: Exactly. And I’m always struck in New York by the extent to which everyone hangs on two writers in one newspaper. At least here we have six or eight people, some of whom will contradict one another. My principal hope here is that some of the newspapers will begin to treat the visual arts the way they treat theater or music and will engage some younger writers to work alongside the people who have been writing for 10, 15, 20 years. It’s a pretty soul-destroying task, always writing about shows that other people have conceived, being obliged to go through all the gallery shows irrespective of whether they’re showing the Renaissance or contemporary art. Over time, not surprisingly, people become slightly jaundiced. There are a few, though, like Richard Cork and Richard Dorment, who remain generous, interested in the new, prepared to listen and look.

RF: The general lot of being an art writer is, I agree, awfully difficult. But what about the presumption that a critic can also be a curator, or will have curatorial acumen? Do you think the two necessarily go hand in hand?

NS: Not necessarily. There are critics, sometimes good critics, who are quite distant from artists, but a good curator almost inevitably has to be close to artists.

RF: I think this is a difficult moment for art publications. My own perception is that the ones that are doing the most interesting work are the ones that are depending increasingly less on the visual arts as their major thrust but are trying to contextualize the visual arts within a larger culture.

NS: Do you think that's because artists themselves are working with a broader range of reference?

RF: Absolutely. You can’t apply the criteria we’ve been working with for a long time now to young artists who feel that every medium is at their disposal. A lot of artists, for example, are doing what looks like conventional photography but don’t feel they belong in museum photography departments. This is making new demands on institutions—there’s a lot of aggressive pushing of boundaries. You must be experiencing that here.

NS: The Tate isn’t planning on establishing a photography department, a print department, a sculpture department, a painting department, in our new institution; we’ll have a body of curators working across the media.

RF: I don’t think you have a choice, really, though it’s a sad phenomenon that the crusading curators who first brought photography, video, and film into their institutions now often feel like they’re up on the battlements trying to pour down boiling oil on the painting and sculpture departments, which have suddenly taken over what they were doing.

NS: The Tate has never had a photography department or a video department to be overthrown, or curators who are so identified with those areas that they have to be prized out in order for other people to be allowed to work there.

RF: Photography would have to be an area where you can go back and fill in some blanks.

NS: We have been and are buying back in that area. I certainly think it’s a mandate for this institution.

RF: What about a stepchild like performance, which is such a difficult thing to bring back to life? Do you feel a commitment to try to make sense of that moment, through archival material, documents, artifacts?

NS: We have an embryonic Fluxus collection, part of which we showed last year. If that material is to survive in the culture at all, the Tate is going to play a part. Clearly what one’s seeing is not in any sense a re-creation, it has to be documentation. But it can be high-quality documentation, informed by scholarship and research and using original material.

RF: Let’s say you have a curatorial moment—you can stop worrying about the building, you can let go of the reins institutionally, and so on. What would be the ideal exhibition you’d begin with at the new Tate?

NS: I haven’t thought about it. I really don’t know.

RF: You haven’t thought—

NS: Of what show I would do personally?

RF: Yes.

NS: No.

RF: On that great floor, nothing rises up to satisfy your moments of fantasy? Surely you’ve populated it.

NS: Not yet.

RF: What an act of selfless denial!

NS: I shall. I shall.

RF: I would assume this isn’t a moment where you’ll turn to someone else and say, Gosh, I’m really busy, could you take over the first display. . . .

NS: Come on, absolutely not. We have to get the building, we have to get the money. In a year or so there’ll be plenty of time to work out precisely what from the collection we’re going to put into different parts of it—

RF: Well, but in the meantime you must drift off to sleep now and again with a pleasant moment as opposed to a pragmatic one. But I shan’t have it out of you, I have a feeling. In terms of the art of this century, though, I’d be curious to know what the keynotes are for you. Have you thought about points of demarcation and debarkation in the way you’d like to use what you have?

NS: Given the Tate’s present collection, the key moments in our presentation are almost certainly going to be in terms of sculpture, as opposed to painting. We will begin with Rodin and will work through some of our strengths into the postwar period. Sculpture could be the peg on which the other parts of the collection will hang. That will make it different from the Modern, for instance, and from the Pompidou to a degree.

RF: Do you see Joseph Beuys as a starting point in postwar German art?

NS: Beuys is a key figure in what we’ll be showing from the postwar period. We currently have one major Beuys; we need others.

RF: Are there pieces you can’t wait to see in another space, given the restraints of the gallery space at Millbank?

NS: There are lots of things we can’t do at present. We can’t show our Bruce Naumans properly, we can’t show our Sol LeWitts properly. It will be fascinating to see the Tate’s Minimalist collection. Long before we get to Bankside we intend to show the photography that the Tate has been buying in recent years in a serious way.

RF: So you’ve been buying aggressively?

NS: I don’t know about “aggressive,” because “aggressive” suggests hundreds of purchases. We’ve made small numbers of purchases by German and British artists who are using the camera.

RF: Are you leaning toward video and film?

NS: They’re creeping in. There was almost no video, film, or installation in the collection until two or three years ago. We’re buying contemporary examples and we’re thinking seriously about buying older works.

RF: Do you feel a need to differentiate among Modern art, contemporary art, art of this century, Modernist art? So many tags get thrown around, depending on whether or not one thinks Modernism is unbroken, or whether an avant-garde is still possible now. Does your movement toward a new facility involve that kind of rethinking of the collection?

NS: There’s no single line of development in art in this century, and we’re not trying to create one. That’s one of the reasons we want a building that will work on a matrix of galleries. I think we’re essentially dealing with the an of this century and contemporary an rather than with Modern art, and certainly not Modernist art. But the collection we inherit was essentially constructed on a Modernist premise, so one question we face is whether we proclaim that fact in the way we show the collection or whether we seek to disrupt at certain points. One of the big issues for an institution like this is whether what we show is limited by what we own, or whether we include loans that inform the stories we’re presenting. This isn’t simply a question of the old opposition between collection and exhibition—do you show your collection or do you do your big exhibitions. Ideas about the function of museums are changing. We’re going to have to become much more sophisticated about the way we make use of the collection. We’re going to have to think about a more subtle presentation, using some things we own, some things we borrow, some things we commission, in the service both of intellectual inquiry and of raising the expectations of visitors. Otherwise the museum is nothing more than a series of trophies.

RF: By the year 2000, when you’re about to open your doors, will the nature of museums have significantly changed?

NS: I don’t know whether it will have “significantly” changed. Over the next four or five years there’s undoubtedly going to be a rush toward the digitized image on the screen, and there’s an unthinking suggestion that this will replace the experience of looking at objects, in real time and real space in a particular location. I suspect that, in the longer term, digitized material will actually reinforce people’s wish to see, to experience that direct confrontation with a particular object—with ideas and fantasies that have come from another individual.

Richard Flood is a writer and the chief curator of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.