Alex Farquharson is the new director of Tate Britain. He takes up the post this autumn, having spent more than seven years at the helm of Nottingham Contemporary, where he oversaw the launch in 2009 of what has become a thriving public gallery boasting an ambitious exhibition programme.
Farquharson is a solid choice. He’s engaging and personable, and is well regarded by fellow museum professionals. And he’s highly thought of by a wide spectrum of British artists, and has worked with figures from Bridget Riley to Pablo Bronstein over the last 20 years. He will inevitably be more attuned to the contemporary art world than his predecessor, Penelope Curtis, having curated and published widely in the field.
So we should expect a renewed energy around the Turner Prize – last year’s exhibition was neither provocative nor surprising, merely dull – and a broader understanding of the role that living artists and their works should play in the museum. This may help to drag the spotlight back towards Tate Britain from its precocious sister on Bankside.
Critics will question what the appointment means for the Tate’s collection of historical British art, and whether it will reverse the institution’s apparent inability to mount serious but accessible exhibitions on traditional subjects. For all that Tate Britain has put on some very good historical shows in the last five or six years – on Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Van Dyck, among others – the notion that it no longer can has become a worrying critical norm.
One criticism levelled against Curtis has been that during her watch the level of curatorial expertise at the museum has shrunk alarmingly, with experts in historical fields put out to pasture and not replaced. And then there have been the muddled thematic exhibitions, which attempt to reinvigorate the collection but are no sooner announced than they enter the critics’ firing line.
Farquharson will need to address those constituents for whom Tate Britain’s historical collection is the museum’s raison d’être – and they will take some convincing. But his recently launched Grand Tour project in the Midlands, which has thus far drawn lines between contemporary artists, the Chatsworth collection and paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, is a positive indication of his willingness to think innovatively about historical material.
Farquharson knows first-hand the funding challenges that museums beyond London have faced in recent years – and how the incline that confronts them is growing rapidly steeper. I hope that, from his new platform in the capital, he’ll be prepared to speak out on the subject, and to consider what else major national museums can do to help smaller regional institutions – beyond converting them into more Tate satellites, that is.
The slender elephant in the room here is Nick Serota. One regularly hears muttering that he’s likely to step down from the Tate directorship once the extension to Tate Modern has been completed next year. And this will have huge implications for the future direction of ‘Tate’ in all its forms. But with Farquharson taking the reins at Tate Britain, and a new director replacing Chris Dercon at Tate Modern in 2017, might Serota not stay on a little longer, until both are firmly established?