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…