PRINT September 2002


Tate Modern’s new director

LATE LAST MAY, a full eleven months after Lars Nittve, Tate Modern’s first director, announced his resignation, the Spaniard Vicente Todolí was named as his replacement. The London press, having had ample time to prepare, welcomed him in typically raucous fashion. STOOGE OR VISIONARY? TATE MODERN’S NEW BOSS, read the Times of London headline. In the Guardian, culture correspondent Maev Kennedy added her own acid commentary: “Everyone in the art world knew the job description should have read “wanted, candidate to run Tate Modern and stand up to Sir Nicholas Serota.’” Serota, often called the most powerful man in British culture, oversees the quartet of Tate museums in London, Liverpool, and St. Ives.

Amid such cheering words, Todolí, 44, the founding director, in 1996, of the Museu Serralves in Porto, Portugal, takes up his new post this January—and he does so at a moment of extraordinary transition for the Tate as a whole. With the recent resignations of Jeremy Lewison and Sandy Nairne, the institution’s directors of collections and programs, respectively; struggling attendance; and mounting financial pressures, including diminished government funding that may be frozen at its current level of about $43 million per annum, Serota’s museums are, in his decorous words, “evolving. These are not easy times, but they are exciting ones.”

Todoli was one of four finalists for the directorship. When asked to confirm the shortlist, Nadine Thompson, head of the Tate’s press office, stated that she would only respond if the names were incorrect. There was no such reply. Two candidates repeatedly mentioned by independent sources are Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, and Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Calvocoressi admitted his candidacy happily, while Schimmel demurred through his assistant to say, “No comment, and there is no basis for this whatsoever.” The name of the fourth candidate, a senior London-based art figure.whose job, it has been said, could be imperiled by exposure, has been withheld.

In conversation, the winner from that shortlist is quick-witted and forceful. Asked about working with so hands-on a boss as Serota, Todolí replies in his rapid-fire, heavily accented English: “I have known Nick closely since the late ’80s, and I have no doubt I can work with him and the team. The ego is not important, the action is. If I thought Nick would micromanage, I would not have considered the job. This must be about trust, and I trust Nick.” That is a remarkable leap of faith considering Serota’s much documented record as a brilliant director challenged only by the notion of laissez-faire management.

Todolí, a native Valencian, won a Fulbright Fellowship to study art history at Yale in the early ’80s and then went on to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum. From 1986 to 1996, he served as artistic director of Spain’s Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno (IVAM) and quickly established both himself and the institution as rising players on the European scene. Dan Cameron, chief curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and an acquaintance of Todolí for a dozen years, notes, “Vicente put that museum on the map through sheer will, and the moment he left it sank back into semi-oblivion. He broke new ground by showing younger international artists in a country that was still inward looking and didn’t grant major exhibitions to artists who weren’t superstars.”

At IVAM, Todolí brought an ambitious range of (predominantly male) talent to Spain—Richard Prince, Allan McCollum, Tony Cragg, Eva Hesse, Lawrence Weiner, and Richard Hamilton among them—as well as surprises like August Strindberg, the nineteenth-century dramatist of Nordic angst hardly known as a painter. “My point of view is very contemporary,” Todolí says, “but you can go as far back as you think it makes sense.” That approach may prove to be fascinating at the Tate, whose collections date from 1500, though the new director won’t yet speak about his plans for programming.

As revealing as Todolí’s curatorial choices at IVAM is the way in which he chose to leave. In the mid-’90s a new Spanish government came to power, and a new general manager, Juan Manuel Bonet, was brought in to IVAM. “Bonet, who is now director of the Reina Sofia in Madrid, was an art critic,” Todolí recalls. “He told me that everything I wanted to do I would have to negotiate with him. I could not compromise myself that way. I resigned in March 1996.” A notable reaction from a man who speaks of the triviality of ego.

Todolí had been approached the previous January about leading the Museu Serralves, Portugal’s first contemporary art museum. The untenable tensions at IVAM made his decision to leave all the more apparent. Located on forty-five acres in the coastal city of Porto, the museum tantalized the Spaniard with a new building and a grand park to fill with art. Joined by a staff of just two curators, he established a collection of Conceptual art from the 1960s and ’70s, a narrow band of work that, in his opinion, captured a moment of seismic shift in culture. His acclaimed opening show, “Circa 1968,” included everyone from Robert Rauschenberg to Michael Snow, Joan Jonas, Christian Boltanski, and Gordon Matta-Clark. Subsequent exhibitions, many guest-curated, have been critical and popular successes, drawing an annual audience of 300,000.

When asked how he sees his role, Todolí replies, “I think of my job as being like that of a film editor and producer—the ones who tell the story from all the footage and then get it made. At heart I’m a curator, and being a director is always temporary.” The comment is striking from the new director of Tate Modern, yet it may show particular foresight. The recent round of high-level staffing changes at the Tate are an opportunity but also a hazard for an outsider who must learn the idioms of a deeply bureaucratic culture under heavy financial constraints. How temporary or durable Todolí’s tenure will be is a matter of speculation in London and beyond. Exciting times, indeed.

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.