Arts Essays - Tate Modern


Institutions in the Arts and Media: Galleries and the rise of the art market - Focusing on the Tate Modern. (UK)

The dazzling success of the Tate Modern has threatened to overwhelm Tate Britain(formerly the Tate Gallery.) But, says Tate Director Nicholas Serota, Brit art was thriving long before Hirst et al renewedLondon's international status. (Taken from The Timeout Guide to Tate Britain,Nov 2001.)

In his Foreword to Tate Modern: The Handbook, Director Lars Nittve writes: every museum isunique; Tate Modern's individuality lies not just in its collection or itslocation...but also in its architecture.

Indeed, what wasonce known as the Tate Gallery has undergone a major overhaul.There are now four branches: two in London (one at Millbank; the TateModern at Bankside; one in St. Ives; and one in Liverpool). According toNittve, "the Tate at Millbank used to be the big mother ship, whereeverything sat-curators, administration, conservation, etc. Now we're moving tosomething more like a federation."

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This paper will takea close look at the Tate Modern, first exploring its singular history and itsarchitectural uniqueness. We will then focus on the wealth and variety of itscollection, which is divided into four basic themes: landscape, still life,history painting, and nudes. Finally, we will examine the Tate Modern in thelarger framework of contemporary art and media, taking note of its influence onthe UK art market, and measuring its status in the international art world.

History of theTate Modern

Nicholas Serota wasappointed Director of the Tate at Millbank in 1988, and shortly after thisdecided to embark on a number of modifications. In an attempt to re-establishthe original architectural integrity of the Millbank building, Serota decidedto remove all signs of artifice. He decided to obliterate the false ceilingsand temporary walls. He also decided upon a major reorganisation of thecollection.

Welcome as thesechanges may have been, they also brought to light the fact that there wassimply not enough space to implement all these changes if the museum were toremain in its current setting. This eventually led to the decision to expand, amove which has had far-reaching effects in the art world, not just in the UKbut internationally.

The search for anew site ultimately led to the old Bankside Power Station. Originally designedand built after the Second World War, the Bankside Power Station was the workof Giles Gilbert Scott, a respected British architect. Scott also designed the[now defunct] power station at Battersea, as well as the Liverpool AnglicanCathedral. He is best known, however, as the designer of the once ubiquitousred telephone box (Craig-Martin, 14).

MichaelCraig-Martin, one of the trustees assigned to investigating potential sites forthe new Tate, notes that:

The Bankside building was notable for itsplain red brick exterior and the powerfulsymmetry of its horizontal mass, bisected at the centre by a singletall, square chimney. The building was articulated on three sides by aseries of immense, well detailed windows. The only decoration came fromthe brickwork crenellation along the building's edging, cleverly mitigatingits great bulk (Craig-Martin, 14-15).

The discovery ofthe Bankside Power Station opened up new vistas for the trustees of the newTate. First of all was the issue of size: the Bankside Power Station was largerthan any of them had imagined. Adjusting their expectations to include such avast space opened up an entirely new perspective as well as a world ofpossibility.

Second of all,they had assumed that they would be commissioning a brand new buildingyet herewas the power station, basically intact. They now had to consider thepossibility that there would be no need to raze the existing building and startoverwhat if they were to work with the existing structure, and make changes asneeded? This, clearly, would be a break from the way things were traditionallydone. Thus, after visiting the Bankside Power Station, the trustees' vision ofwhat the new gallery could be began to change, and their preconceived notionswere replaced by exciting new concepts (Craig-Martin, 15).

The existence ofso many positive factors convinced the trustees that the Bankside site was thebest choice as the new site of the home of modern art. Not only were thepossibilities were inviting; also to be considered was the location, which wasideal; the possibility of development; and the interest and support of thelocal government.

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Location wascertainly a major consideration; this London location boasted first-ratetransport facilities, including the new tube station at Southwark. In addition,there was the possibility of a riverbank connection with the Millbank gallery(Craig-Martin, 15). And the local Southwark Council wasted no time inacknowledging the potential impact this could have on the local community, anarea much in need of a financial and industrial boost: The local council,Southwark, recognising the potential impact of the Tate project on developmentand employment in this largely run-down area, enthusiastically supported it fromthe start (Craig-Martin, 15).


Relocation to theBankside site meant opened up a wealth of opportunity for the Tate. Forstarters, the vast size of the building meant that the Tate would be able tomore than double its capacity for showing its collection as well as housingmajor large-scale temporary exhibitions (Craig-Martin, 15). Beyond this, the possibilitiesseemed even more exciting: even after expansion, there would be a vast expanseof untouched space, leaving the possibilities for continued growth and capacityfor even greater acquisitions wide open.

But questions ofhow to approach and re-design this space still had to be sorted out. DirectorNicholas Serota enlisted the assistance of Trustee Michael Craig-Martin andsculptor Bill Woodrow to visit some of the newer museums of contemporary art onthe Continent, and to consider them critically from our point of view asartists (Craig-Martin, 17). In this way, Serota helped to best utilize the newspace, with an eye on art, rather than architecture.

After visiting anumber of modern museums, Martin and Woodrow found that for the most part,modern museums better served the interests of architects and architecture thanthose of art and artists. Clearly the interests of art were not the primaryconsideration of those chosen to design the space that would best showcase it. Manyarchitects clearly considered designing a museum to be a prime opportunity forhigh-profile signature work. On the other hand few architects seemed truly tounderstand or be interested in the needs of art (Craig-Martin, 17).

They reportedthese findings to Serota and the other trustees, with the ultimate result thatthere was a shift in the thinking behind the architectural approach. Now, thecentral concern of the design of the new building would be to address theneeds of art through the quality of the galleries and the range ofopportunities, both sympathetic and challenging, for showing art. While seekingthe best possible architectural solution, we determined that the project wouldbe art led not architecture led (Craig-Martin, 17).

The decision ofthe trustees was not a popular one in many circles. Architects in particularfelt deprived, seeing the decision only in light of their own potentialgrowthor lack thereof: Some, seeing this as the betrayal of a uniquearchitectural opportunity for London, interpreted it as the result of a loss ofinstitutional nerve (Craig-Martin, 17).

Ultimately, Herzog& de Meuron were selected to be the architects. They were the only oneswhose design managed to keep the building intact without making major changesto its basic structure, to appreciate the beauty and value already inherent inthe existing structure: Herzog & de Meuron's was the only proposal thatcompletely accepted the existing buildingits form, its materials and itsindustrial characteristicsand saw the solution to be the transformation of thebuilding itself into an art gallery (Craig-Martin, 17).

Indeed, as pointedout by Insight Guides: Tate Modern has captured the public'simagination in a quite unprecedented way, both for its displays and itsbuilding, which establishes a magnificent presence on the South Bank (194).

The Collection

Insight Guides states that the arrangement of the collection makes it both moreaccessible to, and more popular with, the general public (194). Instead of achronology, the work is organized by a four separate (though admittedlyoverlapping) themes. The displays replace a single historical account withmany different stories of artistic activity and suggest their relationship tothe wider social and cultural history of the 20th and early 21stcentury (Insight Guides 194).

The four themesare, basically: landscape, still life, history painting, and nudes.

Within each ofthese broad themes it is possible to explore a rich syntax of intention andstrategy, (Blazwick & Morris, 35).


When one thinks oflandscapes, a variety of scenes may come to mind: waves crashing on a rockybeach; a horizon of dark, menacing clouds; skyscrapers silhouetted against asunset. As Blazwick & Morris point out, the genre of landscape isprimarily understood as a representation of a natural or urban scene, whichmight be topographic, metaphoric or sublime (35). At the Tate Modern, however,the genre of landscape has been reconceived to include the zone of the imaginary,uncanny dreamscapes, symbolic visualisations of anxiety and desire (Blazwick& Morris, 35).

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As Jennifer Mundypoints out, landscape is an ambiguous term and can have several overlappingmeanings: much of its resonance derives from the often uncertain boundarybetween nature and culture, the objective and the subjective (42). Thus alandscape may be a faithful rendering of the physical world, such as the dreamymiddle-class countrysides of Impressionism. Or it may be symbolic rendering ofan interior landscape, such as the more obscure works of the Surrealists.

The Tate Modern'sLandscape collection tries to reflect the range and diversity of this genre,while also addressing the complex threat of modern technology. As Mundy notes,today the threat posed to the environment by modern technology and the growthof the human population has made the natural landscape a topical, even urgent,subject for art (50).

StillLife/Object/Real Life

Paul Moorhouseposits that among the many radical developments in the visual arts during thelast hundred years, one of the most significant has been the extraordinarygrowth and transformation of the genre known as still life (60). By the periodof Cubism, still life no longer meant an apple on a plate, but rather thecomplexity of the relationship of the objects to each other and to the viewer:The inertness of such objects as a glass, a bottle, a pipe or a newspaperprovided a perfect vehicle for evoking the complex phenomenologicalrelationships between such artefacts, the surrounding space and the viewerperceiving them (62).

The Tate Modern'scollection is a reflection of the evolution of the form referred to as stilllife, and which today defies definition. According to Moorhouse, this fusionof the actual and the symbolic has created the conditions for a remarkablevitality and diversity in contemporary art (68), a vitality and diversityreflected in the Tate Modern's ever-changing representations of the genre.


The concept ofhistory/memory/society is wide-ranging and ambitious, perhaps intentionallyso. Public morality, politics, ideology, idealism and suffering among otherthemes still preoccupy artists today comments Jeremy Lewison (88). The TateModern collection attempts to represent these themes as they are expressed inmodernity, while reflecting the continuum in which they necessarily exist.Clearly this is an ambitious task, considering the multitude of methods used toexpress and relate these concepts across the ages.

The study ofhistory has descended to the micro level, posits Lewison, adding that it hasbeen, in a sense, democratised. History is no longer solely the provenance ofleaders and heroes; it is rather, in the hands of the common individual. Theartists of today have followed a similar course, Lewison suggests, and, byemploying the same strategies, by opening themselves to techniques and conceptsderived from the human and social sciences, artists today address issuesrelevant to contemporary life (88).


Among the mostancient man-made objects recognisable as belonging to the category that we callart are small naked human figures carved from stone or ivory posits SimonWilson (96). Clearly, as humans we are obsessed with representations of thebody and this has been reflected throughout history.

The final decadesof the twentieth century have seen remarkable changes in the concept of thehuman body. Significant advances in technology, combined with the lengthened lifespans of our population, have spurred a re-thinking of what the body isindeed,at times it has seemed to become objectified. These changes are of coursereflected in art.

As Wilson pointsout, during this time period artists began to use their own body as theexpressive medium, initially creating necessarily ephemeral works in the formof what became known as Performance art (104). This, in conjunction with useof various media such as film, video, and still photography, is all part of theTate Modern's programme in accurately capturing and representing this genre.

The Tate Modernand the International Art World

The success of theTate Modern may have initially seemed to eclipse the Tate Britainhowever, aresponse like this surely had to have been expected. The selection of GilesGilbert Scott's Bankside Power Station as its new home was itself a newsworthyevent. The subsequent choice of Herzog & de Meuron as architects causedconsiderable buzz in the art world and the country at large. Therefore it issmall wonder that when it finally opened its doors, the world was indeeddazzled by the Tate Modern.

Stephen Deuchar,Director of the Tate Britain, writes in the Foreward to Humphrey's book:

the creation in 2000 of Tate Modern andTate Britain as distinctive entitieswith the Tate organisation, were initial steps towards the renaissanceof Millbank. Now, with many new galleries for displays andexhibitions, and with a future programme setting our collections withina plethora of new contexts, national and international, our role here asthe world's centre for the study and enjoyment of British art may emergewith fresh clarity...

There is, however,no doubt that the Tate Modern will play an influential role in the art world.It is unique in conception, as noted earlier, because it was carefully designedto meet the needs of the artist, as opposed to those of the architect. AsCraig-Martin pointed out, while seeking the best possible architecturalsolution, we determined that the project would be art led not architecture led(17).

In addition, thereis the simple, yet vitally important issue of size and space alone. Thediscovery of the Bankside Power Station opened up new vistas for the trusteesof the new Tate. Bankside Power Station was larger than any of them hadimagined, and the process of adjusting their expectations to include such avast space opened up an entirely new perspective. . Not only were thepossibilities were inviting; also to be considered was the location, which wasideal; the possibility of development; and the interest and support of thelocal government.

Beyond the merephysical properties such as architecture and size are the ways in which these attributesare utilised. The vision of the Tate Modern thus far seems to be on the cuttingedge. The best museums of the future to promote different modesand levels of 'interpretation' by subtle juxtapositions of 'experience' writesNicholas Serota. He further asserts that the best museums will contain somerooms and works that will be fixed, the pole star around which the others this way we can expect to create a matrix of changing relationshipsto be explored by visitors according to their particular interests andsensibilities (54-55).

As Deuchar hassaid, we no longer choose to relate a single narrative of British art andculture, but to explore a network of stories about art and about Britain, withour collections at its core (Foreward to Humphreys' book). And has Nittve has pointed out "the Tate at Millbank used to bethe big mother ship, where everything satcurators, administration,conservation, etc. Now we're moving to something more like a federation(Frankel).

The Tate Modern, thenecessary extension of this core, may in fact be viewed as a pole star initself, at the forefront of the modern art scene, with a world of limitless potentialahead.

Reference List

Adams, Brooks, Lisa Jardine, MartinMaloney, Norman Rosenthal, and Richard Shone. 1997. Sensation:Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. London: Royal Academyof Arts.

Blazwick, Iwona and Frances Morris. 2000.Showing the Twentieth Century. In Tate Modern: The Handbook, eds.Iwona Blazwick and Simon Wilson, pp. 28-39. Berkeley: U of CA Press withTate Gallery Publishing Limited.

Craig-Martin, Michael. 2000. Towards TateModern. In Tate Modern: The Handbook, eds. Iwona Blazwick andSimon Wilsonpp. 12-23.Berkeley: U of CA Press with TateGallery Publishing Limited.

Frankel, David. April 2000. Art Forum.

Accessed May 26, 2005.

Humphreys, Richard. 2001. The TateBritain Companion to British Art. London: Tate


Insight Guides: Museums and Galleries ofLondon. 2002. Basingstoke, Hants: GeoCenter InternationalLtd.

Lewison, Jeremy. 2000. History Memory/Society. In Tate Modern: The Handbook, eds. Iwona Blazwickand Simon Wilsonpp. 74-93. Berkeley: U of CA Press, with TateGallery Publishing Limited.

Massey, Doreen. 2000. Bankside:International Local. In Tate Modern: The Handbook, eds. IwonaBlazwick and Simon Wilsonpp. 24-27.Berkeley: U of CA Press with Tate Gallery Publishing Limited.

Moorhouse, Paul. Still Life/Object/RealLife. 2000. In Tate Modern: The Handbook, eds. Iwona Blazwickand Simon Wilsonpp. 58-73. Berkeley: U of CA Press with TateGallery Publishing Limited.

Mundy, Jennifer. 2000.Landscape/Matter/Environment. In Tate Modern: The Handbook,eds. Iwona Blazwick and Simon Wilsonpp. 40-53.Berkeley: U of CA Press with Tate Gallery Publishing Limited.

Serota, Nicholas. 1996. Experience orInterpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art. WalterNeurath Memorial Lectures, London: Birkbeck College.

Shone, Richard. 1997. From 'Freeze' toHouse: 1988-94. In Sensation: Young British

Artists from the Saatchi Collection. London: Royal Academy of Arts.

Wilson, David M., ed. 1989. TheCollections of the British Museum. London: British MuseumPress.

Wilson, Simon. 2000. Nude/Action/Body. InTate Modern: The Handbook, eds. Iwona Blazwick andSimon Wilsonpp. 94-107.Berkeley: U of CA Press with Tate GalleryPublishing Limited.