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How Tate Modern transformed London – and beyond

As Tate Modern’s new extension is unveiled, leading curators, museum directors, and critics consider how the institution has shaped the audience for art since it first opened

31 May 2016

Lars Nittve
Founding director

It all started at 9.59am on 12 May 2000. The fact that it was not 10am, but one minute earlier, lies at the heart of what I believe is the ‘Tate effect’. The museum opened a minute earlier than announced, symbolising its openness: the thousands of art lovers who poured down the ramp into the Turbine Hall, many with tears in their eyes, did not merely feel like ‘visitors’ but perhaps more like ‘guests’. From the first moment, the place felt welcoming and its visitors understood that this was for them, not just for other people.

The ‘Tate effect’ is, at its core, measured by the fact that Tate Modern welcomed, and continued to receive about three times more visitors than the consultants predicted, and twice as many as the Tate Modern team expected. Many of those ‘unexpected’ visitors were first-time visitors to art galleries, or even to museums.

I don’t think this was primarily due to the strength of the Tate collection, or even to the thematic display (even though we know that it was appreciated much more by those who were new to modern and contemporary art than to those who saw themselves as ‘experts’). Despite the many excellent exhibitions staged over the years, I don’t believe that they are the key to what happened. There were a number of other factors: from big things, like the architecture, and how it felt to enter the space, with the Turbine Hall acting as a continuation of public space and providing ease of orientation; to smaller details like how and from where the front of house staff were recruited (many of them were local) and how they had been trained to help; to the tone of the wall texts in the galleries and the inclusive and varied ways in which we talked about art. The museum struck a balance in its respect for both art and artists, and the public: it achieved excellence and access.

These ideas and practices were, of course, not new inventions. Some I brought from previous museums I had directed, including the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark; others came from the amazing team that laid the foundations for Tate Modern’s success. I’ve tried to make use of its lessons at the museums I have led since – from the Moderna Museet in Stockholm to the M+ in Hong Kong, scheduled to open in 2019. The opening date is not yet set, but the time is: 9.59am.

Lars Nittve was the director of Tate Modern from 1998–2001.

Nicholas Cullinan
Former Tate curator

The achievements of Tate Modern over the last decade and a half are numerous. These range from some landmark and beautiful exhibitions (‘Matisse Picasso’ in 2002 and ‘Mira Schendel’ in 2013 spring to mind, among many others); an interdisciplinary approach which gives due attention to film and performance; turning a non-chronological and thematic display approach, which seemed frankly odd and ill-advised when it first opened, into practically the norm; being largely responsible for making London arguably the centre of the contemporary art world, but far more importantly, making the UK a more visually literate society with an reinvigorated appetite for the innovative and the unfamiliar.

However, the single greatest and most influential achievement of Tate Modern is easy to pinpoint. It has trailblazed a paradigm that all the other great modern and contemporary museums that predated it, such as MoMA and the Centre Pompidou (and whose collections formerly certainly surpassed it), have now followed – that an account of modern and contemporary art must be truly global, inquisitive, and inclusive; it must cut across mediums and look beyond the Western canon.

Tate Modern has pioneered this through its acquisitions and collection-building, through an inclusive and very clever series of regional acquisitions committees that bring in donors who wouldn’t otherwise have a reason to be engaged with the museum, and its exhibition and displays programme. The result is so simple as to be almost overlooked, but is ultimately transformative: our understanding of the art of the last century looks different than it did 16 years ago. I am proud to have begun my career there.

Nicholas Cullinan is the director of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Alastair Sooke
Art critic

When Tate Modern opened, in spring 2000, I was a first-year undergraduate, reading English literature. I remember traipsing along to the Turbine Hall to marvel at Louise Bourgeois’s muscular steel spider, with its sensuous marble eggs secreted, on its undercarriage, in a meshed sac.

In truth, though, as an 18-year-old, I was more preoccupied with fathoming The Waste Land than learning about contemporary art. I suppose I considered myself ‘cultured’, in a broad sense; after all, I had heard of Lucian Freud. Yet, one day, when a student friend, who was the son of an art dealer, mentioned the names ‘Gilbert’ and ‘George’, I looked at him blankly.

Two and a half years later, I returned to Tate Modern, having enrolled at the Courtauld to study ancient Greek and Roman art. When people talk about epiphanies, they often sound like phonies – but the monumental artwork I encountered that day, Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas, which dominated the Turbine Hall, certainly had a transformative effect upon me.

Perhaps I was predisposed to like it even before I’d arrived, because the title referred to an ill-fated satyr from Greek mythology, who was flayed alive after rashly challenging Apollo to a musical contest. This grisly subject was surprisingly popular in ancient art – and, later, I devoted my MA thesis to the theme. Kapoor’s installation at Tate Modern felt like serendipity.

Yet you didn’t need to be versed in ancient myth to appreciate the power or formal brilliance of Kapoor’s piece. A cylindrical, blood-red PVC membrane, stretched taut between three steel rings, spanned the length of the Turbine Hall. This enigmatic form resembled the muscles or innards of a giant, turning the rigid girders of the surrounding architecture, in my mind at least, into mammoth bones. I had never encountered a sculpture that felt so, well, ambitious. I was hooked.

Over the years, people have often carped about Tate Modern. They say that its permanent collection is patchy and meagre, or that too much real estate, within the building, is given over to the Turbine Hall – essentially a massive void. Yet, for me, the Unilever Series made Tate Modern a success. As an impressionable young man, I was bewitched by the imaginative scope of the annual commissions inside this austere, echoing space. I guess you could say that Tate Modern turned me on to modern and contemporary art.

Alastair Sooke is an art critic for the Daily Telegraph and a broadcaster.

Maria Balshaw
Museum director

When Tate Modern opened in 2000, contemporary art was a minority sport – a difficult, technical subject with a hard core of followers who had the knowledge and knew the language. The Turbine Hall changed that forever. In 2003, as I watched my two children lie on their backs and make shapes to see in the vast ceiling mirror of Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, along with many hundreds of other visitors, I could see the landscape had changed. It had been tilted, like the long incline that draws you in to Tate Modern’s heart.

That tilt has opened up an overwhelming set of opportunities for all of us who work in the visual arts and want to expand its democratic potential and reach. It has led to Nikhil Chopra creating a drawing over the course of more than 60 hours on the interior of a vast canvas tent inside the Whitworth, while Manchester’s night-time population came, saw, stayed, and sometimes slept. Tino Sehgal has spread whispers into intrigued visitors’ ears in London and in Londonderry. And 16 years later, 18,000 people came over a single weekend to witness the rebirth of the Whitworth, including a graphene-fuelled meteorite shower courtesy of Cornelia Parker.

Contemporary visual art is not a minority sport any more: it is athletics. And so we now have phase two, and the expanded field of art practice and engagement with people and ideas, in a social learning space, will have a larger environment in which to play. We could not have imagined that Tate Modern would be such a global cultural catalyst. I look forward to being surprised by what unfolds next.

Maria Balshaw is the director of the Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester City Galleries.

Jon Snow
Former Tate trustee

The opening of what we trustees used to refer to as TM2 represents another high-water mark in the consolidation of London as the world’s greatest and most multicultural city. Forty years ago, Londoners would pine for New York, viewing that city as the ultimate cultural destination. But the turn of the millennium represented a turning point for London, too: in 2000, Tate Modern opened. The transition from power station and coal stacks to vast spaces filled with modern art seemed to symbolise a coming of age for Britain, for London, and for culture, from which so much other social and physical regeneration and development has flowed.

The boldness and enormity of the Turbine Hall took the art world by storm, from the opening moment when Louise Bourgeois’s complex towers were unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. In 2003, the same space revealed apparently comatose bodies strewn across the vast empty floor space, as visitors gazed at the sun in Olafur Eliasson’s memorable Weather Project installation.

Tate Modern immediately generated a kind of London date-line – ‘before Tate Modern opened’ and ‘after Tate Modern opened’. The energy generated by its presence on the South Bank seemed to touch every aspect of life. The museum attracts – as it still does – many people who previously never entered an art gallery, or even thought to do so.

Amid the change to London, which is seemingly identified with Tate Modern, its inspirational driving force, Nick Serota, led the push for more. But more what? How was the linear blockhouse that housed so many other varied shapes to be built upon? Some part of it was still involved in what it was first constructed for – power generation. I remember as a trustee, wondering if we could even cope with ‘more’. After the transition from power station to modern art gallery, what could be done that would not violate the building’s already iconic status?

Almost inevitably it was the original architects of the museum, Herzog & de Meuron, who seized the initiative with the cultural volcano that is the new Tate Modern. Gracious, spacious, and playing to, but not against, the old structure. A seamless glass and concrete adjunct that stands its own ground against the sumptuous spread of brick to which it is invisibly anchored.

We were not wrong in that millennial moment. Tate Modern symbolised the coming of age of the new London. The new Tate Modern dares to take on the future.

Jon Snow is chair of the Tate Members Council.

Edwin Heathcote
Architecture critic

The thing about industrial buildings is their visceral scale. No contemporary cultural building could justify a lobby the size of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but as a found space, it is just there. And it is the Turbine Hall, even when it is empty of art, that characterises the institution. It is, I’d argue, the finest new public space in the city. It is free to access, it is generous and there is a sense of the unexpected. The descent down the ramp gives it a chthonic quality, an idea of sinking into the city’s industrial archaeology. The scale is epic, almost Egyptian, and the background hum of the electricity substation still operating on the other side of the wall amplifies the sense of the dark, mysterious – perhaps even slightly sinister – presence of a past that is still somehow present.

London is increasingly becoming a city of corporate banality in which entire new quarters of steel, glass, and grass are emerging, seemingly disassociated from their sites and the city’s grain, ground, and history. Tate Modern avoids this neutered domain of white walls and glass by revelling in its scars, in the traces of history and industry, machinery and power. It is determinedly not a white cube and its galleries are not squeezed into awkward shapes to accommodate a sculptural icon. It has, instead, a predestined presence and the charisma of a past. Now that even Doha is converting its mills into art spaces, the age of industrial transformation is surely coming to a close – although nothing remotely convincing seems to be replacing it.

Tate Modern’s own galleries are fine, if not spectacular – the new extension will free up some space and make the existing galleries less constricted. But after the cavernous Turbine Hall, everything seems claustrophobic. It is the epic public space of contemporary art, a challenge to architects and artists alike, to make something to match it for impact and emotion. It embodies the city’s tension between past and present, history and modernity, commerce and culture, a monument to counterbalance the dome of St Paul’s and the towers of capital on the opposite side. The Bilbao effect has become a recognised phenomenon of what architecture can do for a city, but sometimes the existing infrastructure needs only to be revealed.

Edwin Heathcote is architecture and design critic of the Financial Times.

From the June issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.

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