PINKY SAYS: THOROUGHLY MODERN NICK
Just suppose I could meet up with one museum director to discuss modern art today Whom would I choose? I would have no problem with my selection. Hands down it would be Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate Gallery in London who has been acclaimed (and vilified) for his 24 years of service to the Tate Modern, Tate Britain and Tate outposts in Liverpool and St.Ives. Serota heads the world’s most visited, most influential modern art museum, and he has changed the culture of Great Britain. Since its launch in 2000 he has transformed the presentation and the understanding of contemporary art around the globe. With the determination to be addressed as “Nick” he has been the most important player in making the Tate Modern the world’s most heavily attended modern art museum. Nick has changed the doubters, the press, and upright citizens of the empire so that they now embrace modern art, the art they once regarded as a joke, a foreign born absurdity practiced by incompetents and charlatans.
The Tate Modern now draws five million visitors a year; more than half of the people who come here are under thirty-five. They drift around in pairs or small groups, chatting, taking pictures of one another with their smartphones, stopping now and then to look at a work of art. Young people rightly feel that the place and the art on view belong to them. The museum occupies a derelict power station on the south side of the Thames. Serota has commented that the Tate always seems to go where no one else wants to go and that the power plant, empty since 1981, has been given a new life. And the art in this new life is also new; art making has shifted dramatically toward installation and performative work, demanding new kinds of exhibition spaces. Audiences seek different forms of participation and engagement. Nick says that there is an appetite for the immersive experience, both physical and phenomenological like James Turrell or emotional like Bill Viola. Bill Viola? No one likes his videos or for that matter any video that takes 20 or 30 minutes of a viewer’s time. There were 30 meter wide concrete oil tanks left in the power plant building which now have become the first museum galleries anywhere dedicated to film, installation and performance pieces. No one knew quite what to do with them when the building was recreated into the Tate Modern but they now will provide the viewers the opportunity to respond to the changing practice of contemporary artists.
The challenge for a museum of the Tate’s stature is to move rapidly enough to identify and acquire new works of lasting importance, while disdaining passing fashions, yet continuously mindful that time is the only real judge. Nick feels that all that he can do is put down first markers, a sort of frame we know will be modified by history, as artists who come later either do or don’t respond to things the Tate has collected. Few museums anticipated the proliferation of huge scale installations or the rapid growth of live and filmed performance works by artists but the Tate Modern has now positioned itself as a primary showcase for these trends. The museum is becoming something else; the larger and larger audiences coming to the museum seem to be looking for a more interactive experience. They want to hear lectures and ask questions, or just spend time here looking at art, buying a book, having coffee with a friend. As part of the latest expansion the restaurant menu is designed to be innovative but not to be outrageously expensive. The new areas are used for live performances, large installations and their opening completed the first stage of Tate Modern’s 215 million pounds expenditure.
Thus the obvious question arrives, Why do you need more space and why not just be satisfied with 5 million visitors per year? Nick feels that the museum was originally designed to accommodate 2 million and that large scale installations or the rapid growth of live and filmed performance work by artists during the past decade has demanded the additional space and that now Tate Modern has positioned itself as a primary showcase for these trends. This is a new kind of exhibition space that artists will figure out how to use. The visitors are looking for more interactive experiences at museums. They seem to have gone beyond the interpretations of curators and other expert authorities and are assembling their own picture of the world. The Tate is providing the open space to accommodate them. Today’s art public has been made aware of art made in other countries and continents, art that has influenced not only England’s artists but Germans, and Americans, and Chinese, and Russians. The English now have a working knowledge and appreciation for Anselm Kiefer, JosephBeuys, David Hockney, Richard Serra, Frances Bacon, Damien Hirst, and yes even Bill Viola. Nick has put the art from 1900 to 2000 into juxtaposition with present day art both physically and intellectually.
London now vies with New York as a marketplace for modern and contemporary art, and this has attracted swarms of new-rich Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern sheiks, and brought in artists from all over the world. A lot more people are going to be in the presence of art, and some of them will look at things and be transported by them. This is what Nick believes and is continuously acting upon. In an age of mass travel and online information, museums no longer need constructs and textbook histories on the wall. Today museums have superseded in many ways the public libraries; they are giving opportunities to people across all classes. Their insights into the world are one of the things that make life worth living. And Nick has given me a new approach to art history. Let’s see whether I can hang onto his concepts long enough to get an understanding of Nick. It is an exciting, yes even thrilling time to be alive and well with Nick.