Nicholas Serota has put a meat cleaver through a major institution without anyone complaining. Charles Saumarez Smith says a Labour government should appoint him minister of cultureby Charles Saumarez-Smith / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Did Nicholas Serota spring fully fledged as a museum director from the womb? He certainly became one very early, starting as director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in 1973 in his late 20s before moving to the Whitechapel Art Gallery when he was only 30. At the Whitechapel he was responsible for shows devoted to artists of the international avant-garde, as well as an exhibition devoted to Sir Christopher Wren. So, it was perhaps inevitable that he should be appointed director of the Tate, where he has now been for ten years.
Most people, apart from Brian Sewell, would accept that he has been a great success at the Tate. He inherited a ramshackle institution which was split between old-fashioned displays of British painting and a hybrid modern collection, part British, part European, strong in its holdings for the first half of the century, but lamentable in its neglect of contemporary art.
He began by rotating displays, keeping the collection on the move and ensuring that more of it was seen by the public, rather than gathering dust in store. A good idea when first introduced, the annual gyration now consumes too much energy; and although it all changes, it also begins to look unexpectedly the same, ever more lightly hung on shades of mud and bistre.
Then he split the modern collection from the British. This now seems an obvious thing to have done, but it is testimony to his political skills that he has been able to put a meat cleaver through the heart of a major British institution without anyone complaining.
Next he needed an appropriate home for the modern collection. The Trustees found what they wanted at Bankside power station, a derelict temple of the industrial age. Perhaps Serota’s greatest coup has been to persuade the Millennium Commission to part with ?50m of lottery money for the conversion on the grounds of inner city job creation.
Serota is a man of action, swimming before getting into the office at dawn, striding around Bankside in a hard hat, slightly terrifying his staff and cultivating contacts among the media, New Labour, and German collectors. He has also found time to publish a slim volume on museums in the Walter Neurath memorial lecture series. The piece is well honed, draws on his wide experience of the international art scene and occasionally, for example when describing William Rubin’s re-hang of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is rather tart.
He argues that the traditional idea of the museum or art gallery is based on critical detachment. In contrast to the private collection in which an individual might accumulate works of art according to taste and whim, a public collection is expected to place the work of individual artists historically either by period or by school or a combination of the two.
In recent years, however, curators of modern art have moved away from the idea of the representative collection to allowing the artist more say in the ways their works are displayed. Beginning with the work of Willem Sandberg at the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam, moving through the displays at the Centre Pompidou, to the modern museums, particularly in Germany, where the environment is as important as the works of art, there has been an increasing recognition that the museum is not a neutral space, but one which has a profound effect on the ways works of art are viewed. Hence the interest of ar-tists, especially sculptors, in the space surrounding their work. Some, such as Richard Serra, Carl Andre and Donald Judd have taken this to extremes.
Serota argues the case for change with conviction but seems unaware of the problems with this approach. If artists are to be involved in the way their works are displayed and if a small number of artists are to be collected in depth, then there is a danger that museums will become shrines to the heroes of the postwar canon. Sculptors, who are interested in the surrounding environment, may be favoured over painters who only require a wall.
Moreover, although some may consider it a step forward to introduce arbitrariness and fragmentation in the experience of works of art, to others it is a step back. The museum abandons history which is comprehensible as a means of public interpretation-what Serota disparagingly labels “the conveyor belt of history”-and becomes a Kunsthalle, in which the visitor may move about freely, but may also feel disoriented. The curator becomes like a dealer or impresario.
His view of museums helps to explain why Serota is such a powerful figure in contemporary art. He has a steely determination to make Britain a player in the international art world. His models are mainly German and there is almost no reference to anything important happening in Britain, not even at the Tate in Liverpool or St Ives. As at English National Opera under Peter Jonas, everything in Germany is better. Judging from the crowds at the Rebecca Horn exhibition, there is an appetite for such internationalism in cultural expression. Perhaps when Labour look for a minister of culture, it should not be Peter Mandelson or Richard Rogers, but Lord Serota of Bankside. Experience or interpretation: the dilemma of museums of modern art
Thames & Hudson 1997, ?7.95