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Tate Britain: A Poisoned Chalice?

9 June 2015

Penelope Curtis leaves Tate Britain in July after a troubled five years in charge. After an increasingly venomous campaign by some critics to oust her, it must come as something of a relief to all concerned that she is moving on to Lisbon’s Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. But how much of the trouble at the Millbank gallery was down to Curtis, and how much the result of intractable problems with the institution itself? Is it a poisoned chalice for whoever follows? Amongst all the recent top-level changes at London’s museums, Tate Britain’s looks potentially the most problematic appointment.

In many ways, Curtis leaves behind a much stronger institution than the one she inherited in 2010. She has overseen a £45 million remodelling and refurbishment of the gallery and orchestrated a critically acclaimed rehang of the permanent collection. On the back of these improvements, Tate Britain was shortlisted for Art Fund Museum of the Year Award in 2014.

Nevertheless, the gallery has experienced an alarming drop in visitor numbers during Curtis’s tenure, down from 1.61 million in 2010/11 to 1.37 million in 2014/15. These figures look even worse when compared with those of other major London museums: over 6.5 million visitors each for the British Museum and the National Gallery last year, 5.7 million for Tate Modern, 3.3 million for the V&A and 2.1 million for the National Portrait Gallery. Tate Britain holds the national collection of British art; it really should be able to attract an audience commensurate with that distinction. Curtis arrived with a reputation for scholarship and curatorial vision, but her successor needs to come with a plan for pulling in many more punters.

Easier said than done. Tate Britain’s building is now a much more attractive venue to visit, but the Pimlico location can seem remote from London’s other cultural attractions. A perception that the gallery occupies a subordinate position to its precocious offspring, Tate Modern, also doesn’t help. Far too readily British art gets relegated to second-tier status, treated as a parochial concern rather than something worthy of international attention. These are all attitudes the next director will need to challenge, becoming a vocal advocate for British art and for the distinctive role of the gallery, not just in London but in an international context.

Tate Britain also has a morale problem. This situation dates back to the controversial restructuring of the curatorial team that Curtis implemented in 2012, primarily as a cost-cutting measure, which saw the departure of some of the most experienced personnel and their replacement with younger, cheaper and more malleable staff. The critics haven’t forgiven her for this and routinely point to weak scholarship and lack of curatorial expertise being at the heart of Tate Britain’s problems, which is ironic given these were meant to be Curtis’s strengths. Over-worked, under-paid and disparaged by the critics, you can’t blame the curators for feeling dispirited. But unhappy curators make an unhappy museum. Resolving this is a management issue – the next director should do whatever it takes to raise morale and instil some mirth in the place again.

Despite what some commentators would have us believe, Tate Britain continues to mount excellent exhibitions. ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ (2012), ‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ (2013) and ‘Late Turner – Painting Set Free’ (2014) were all well received and popular. But alongside has been a string of duds, culminating in the much derided ‘Sculpture Victorious’ earlier this year. It is the thematic exhibitions in particular that seem to go awry. They often look like the output of committees, lacking a clear and consistent curatorial vision, with art works poorly displayed and thrown together in uncomfortable juxtapositions. To make matters worse, two exhibitions were on anti-art themes of iconoclasm (‘Art Under Attack’ in 2013) and ruins (‘Ruin Lust’ in 2014), which seemed to betray a loss of faith in British art and a mood of pessimism within the museum. Addressing the variable quality of the exhibitions, maybe by having more narrowly focused shows, or even a more populist approach, must be a priority.

Tate Britain has a lot going for it: a world-class museum building, dedicated and talented staff and a comprehensive collection of British art, ranging across historic, modern and contemporary periods. I don’t share the view of some critics that the gallery requires a major overhaul or to rediscover its purpose. But it does need to re-find its confidence after a difficult few years. A director who can communicate a passion for British art, is a good manager and has the popular touch should be able to achieve this.

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