PRINT April 2000


Tate Modern

WHEN THE TATE GALLERY OF Modern Art opens the doors of the transformed Bankside Power Station to the public on May 12, the international museum landscape will never be the same. Comparisons between the central London institution’s debut and the opening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929 or the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1977 don’t seem far-fetched. The museum’s press material has played up the fact that Tate Modern will represent not only a major new museum for modern and contemporary art but also the public face of twenty-first-century London. Tate director Nicholas Serota, the recently knighted art historian who has supervised the entire process—from the trustees’ decision in 1992 to establish an autonomous exhibition space for the international collection to the appointment in 1998 of a director for the new space, Lars Nittve, and a team of curators—is unequivocal in his assessment of the magnitude of Tate Modern: “I think that the creation of an institution of this magnificence is bound to raise the status of visual art and especially contemporary art in Great Britain. Today it’s difficult to imagine what London would be like without the National Theatre. I think that in ten years’ time, or even in three years’ time, it will be difficult to remember what London was like without Tate Modern.”

The effect will by no means be limited to the English art scene. With Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool, and Tate St. Ives, Tate Modern belongs to a family of galleries, each with its own director but working in tandem as a single organization headed by Serota. Representing by far the most significant investment in a new national arts institution in London in decades—the project, partially funded by proceeds from a national lottery, ran to £134 million ($213 million)—Tate Modern will no doubt do wonders for the international status of the city, which continues to battle its pre-YBA reputation as one of the sleepier contemporary-art metropolises in Western Europe. Serota points to the somewhat ambiguous position of the British, who see themselves as part of Europe while maintaining a certain distance. Clearly Tate Modern will be perceived as a great European museum, but because of the special history that exists between Britain and the US, it can help build a bridge between continents as well: “It looks both ways, and we of course hope to combine the strengths of both cultures.”

Maybe the period of spanking-new, spectacular museum buildings is drawing to a close, the Guggenheim Bilbao being a last, excessive straw. In the afterword to her 1998 study Towards a New Museum, Victoria Newhouse concludes, “If recent years have witnessed the upstaging of art by museum architecture and amenities, the future may see the disappearance of the original art objects altogether.” That future may still seem far off, but it’s true that the extravagant architecture of some recently constructed museums frequently steals the show. “Extensive research and a questionnaire sent out to a large number of artists all over the world asking in what kind of museums they prefer to exhibit made it clear that the most popular spaces for art are quite frequently industrial conversions,” Serota says. “That gave us confidence in our choice of the Bankside Power Station.” The gigantic industrial building—located on the south bank of the Thames opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral—has been converted into a space for exhibitions by Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architectural firm that has catapulted to international prominence since landing the commission.

The museum’s economic impact on London should be formidable. Tate Modern will add an estimated £50–£90 million ($79–$143 million) annually to the London economy and help create 2,400 new jobs. The number of visitors is expected to exceed two million a year. Still, these predictions inevitably bring to mind the question of the museum in the age of cultural tourism. A decade ago, Rosalind Krauss wrote that the museum of the future might have “more in common with other industrialized areas of leisure—Disneyland, say—than . . . with the older, preindustrial museum. . . . It will deal with mass markets, rather than art markets, and with simulacral experience rather than aesthetic immediacy.” When asked about the dangers of behemoth art institutions, Serota mentions the importance of creating an “intimate and personal relationship between the art and the visitor” and of remaining open and welcoming to living talent. “I think that we have a responsibility to constantly reinterpret the past but also to create a framework through which one looks at the present,” he says. “You cannot pay attention to everything, so it requires curatorial judgment as to what to show and what to acquire. History may judge, but I don’t think that we can afford to let history decide altogether.”

If Serota’s emphasis on artistic vitality is one way to head off the “Disney effect,” then why is the museum called “Modern”? Doesn’t the very name de-emphasize the importance of recent expressions and contemporary approaches to the collection? “The distinction between modern and contemporary was useful during a period, but seems less meaningful today,” says Nittve, former director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark. “The past is a complex of multiple histories, and a clear break around 1960, say, no longer makes much sense. It’s more challenging to search for connections and continuities. The concept of modernity has always signified a period as well as that which is recent. For most people modern simply signifies that which is new.”

Nittve emphasizes the importance of never viewing a historical show as something dealing exclusively with the past: “If we stage a large historical show, it will always be because the art raises issues or asks questions that are also relevant for the present. We will view our exhibitions in a completely nonhierarchic manner, which doesn’t mean that the approach will always be the same. On the contrary, it’s important to have spontaneous and fast projects based on close collaboration with the artists in addition to well-planned and rigorously researched exhibitions. A large national institution like this must also cultivate currents of counterculture.” While one doesn’t expect the Tate to be hosting raves, it’s clearly no longer the staid institution it once was.

As head of exhibitions and displays for Tate Modern, Iwona Blazwick will play a key role in the realization of the program. To this end, she distinguishes between four main strands: the display of Tate Modern 2000: The Collection (the slightly wonky title for that part of the permanent collection of international twentieth-century art going on view at the new address); the temporary exhibition program; commissioned works; and a series of projects based not in the galleries but in other media or at other sites. When it comes to the collection, her plans are ambitious: “When I came to the Tate, I arrived with a number of queries. I wanted to question the widely accepted model for exhibiting the art of the twentieth century that is inspired by Alfred Barr’s idea of a linear and evolutionary succession. This idea of a chronology . . . does make sense in terms of historical progression, but it has limitations. Artistic practices don’t start and end in such a clean and logical way. Picasso was alive at the same time as Warhol, and such synchronism needs another model.”

Together with Frances Morris, art program curator for Tate Modern, Blazwick has instead developed a thematic model. “For about a year we brainstormed about the possible approaches one could take to history, ranging from the most complex to the simplest. Some of the nine or ten themes we rehearsed were technology, geography, ontology, epistemology, teleology, and spirituality. We didn’t go with any one of them, but they all fed into the final solution. The thematic structure that we’ve chosen will remain for five years, but the works will change regularly. Some rooms will be devoted to individual works, others to a particular movement, such as Surrealism. Occasionally we’re following classical museum conventions, but in a new framework.”

Establishing a dialectic between historical and contemporary art is an overarching concern. “The exhibitions will never stress a break between classical modernism and very recent art but instead focus on continuities and unexpected connections and thus fold the most contemporary expressions back into the collections,” says Blazwick. “On Level Four we will always have one large-scale exhibition, a medium-size project, and one small project. Each year for the next five we will commission a large sculpture-based work for the huge Turbine Hall”—an immense top-lit space, some 500 feet long with 115-foot ceilings. First up will be Louise Bourgeois’s mammoth “Unilever Series.”

The curators of Tate Modern clearly hope that their efforts will reinvest the past with the present. Ralph Rugoff once wrote of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, “If a museum can disrupt our sense of distance from the objects it displays, it might not serve to isolate the past so much as to link it to our current experience.” The curators at a British national institution cannot allow themselves the same kind of mischievous tricks that characterize an experimental space in Los Angeles, of course, but if the collection is really brought to life, all the anticipation around Tate Modern will certainly be justified.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.