The Endless Stair has climbed into view outside Tate Modern, but last week the institution was eager to direct attention to its regular staircases indoors. These have been fitted with clusters of interactive screens – square speech bubbles with safety-scissor curves – onto which comments, photographs and digital drawings by visitors are floated and shuffled in a constantly updating display.
The screens are part of Bloomberg Connects, Tate’s ambitious digital initiative that also includes a new drawing bar, where participants can see their own digital doodles projected briefly onto a large white wall. The first drawing most of us saw on rounding the corner at its unveiling was ‘Matt smells!’, scrawled across a display square and lingering embarrassedly until it was censored with someone’s attractively wonky take on Damien Hirst’s dots. Clearly the decision to project the drawings without moderation is a brave one, although apparently there are ‘systems in place’ to make sure the naughtier contributions don’t stay up for very long.
Pranks aside, the display is smooth and eye-catching, and the idea a fun one. It’s in keeping with the blockbuster gallery’s successful public image as a family-friendly tourist destination, and the drawing bar in particular is surely a parent’s dream: big, bright and playfully creative, it allows children to explore the act of drawing within a gallery space, without creating a huge mess.
Whether it actually improves visitors’ engagement with the collection itself, little of which can be viewed from the stairs or the drawing bar, is up for debate. A few lucky artists (Hepworth among them) are featured in the drawing bar’s projection, and so face the rather scary prospect of sharing wall-space with the five-year-olds who ‘could have done that’. Otherwise, for better or worse, the ‘real’ art and the visitor art are largely kept to separate rooms.
As Tate’s new buildings and refurbishment projects edge towards completion, the digital programme is being pushed as the next phase in a seemingly endless expansion. But rather than focus (as most digital strategies do) on digital media’s capacity to reach far-flung audiences, the latest features look back to the building itself. Richard Roberts – design manager for Jason Bruges Studio, who developed the project – explained the new features as an attempt to create ‘a digital community within the building’ that rewards those who actively visit its displays.
Such a model is surely a good one for museums and galleries under pressure both to build up their online programmes and get people physically through the door. It’s also an expensive one. Bloomberg Connects enjoys a fairly obvious source of corporate sponsorship, and shortly before the drawing bar’s unveiling Lord Browne (chairman of the trustees) announced plans to redraw and secure its wider funding arrangements with the government for the next five years.
With support like that in place, Tate will be able to draft its expansion plans on firmer ground. The engagement programmes it pursues have the potential to significantly influence public expectations of how UK galleries operate; and its negotiations with the government will surely have repercussions for how cultural institutions pursue funding in the long term. As it forges on up its endless stair of self-improvement, it will be interesting to see how other places respond in in their attempts to keep up.
Bloomberg Connects launched at Tate Modern on 19 September 2013.