The Tate Modern: History and Development
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Published: Fri, 04 May 2018
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 is unique; Tate Modern’s individuality lies not just in its collection or its location…but also in its architecture.
Indeed, what was once known as the Tate Gallery has undergone a major overhaul. There are now four branches: two in London (one at Millbank; the Tate Modern at Bankside; one in St. Ives; and one in Liverpool). According to Nittve, “the Tate at Millbank used to be the big mother ship, where everything sat-curators, administration, conservation, etc. Now we’re moving to something more like a federation.”
This paper will take a close look at the Tate Modern, first exploring its singular history and its architectural uniqueness. We will then focus on the wealth and variety of its collection, which is divided into four basic themes: landscape, still life, history painting, and nudes. Finally, we will examine the Tate Modern in the the larger framework of contemporary art and media, taking note of its influence on the UK art market, and measuring its status in the international art world.
History of the Tate Modern
Nicholas Serota was appointed Director of the Tate at Millbank in 1988, and shortly after this decided to embark on a number of modifications. In an attempt to re-establish the original architectural integrity of the Millbank building, Serota decided to remove all signs of artifice. He decided to obliterate the false ceilings and temporary walls. He also decided upon a major reorganisation of the collection.
Welcome as these changes may have been, they also brought to light the fact that there was simply not enough space to implement all these changes if the museum were to remain in its current setting. This eventually led to the decision to expand, a move which has had far-reaching effects in the art world, not just in the UK but internationally.
The search for a new site ultimately led to the old Bankside Power Station. Originally designed and built after the Second World War, the Bankside Power Station was the work of Giles Gilbert Scott, a respected British architect. Scott also designed the [now defunct] power station at Battersea, as well as the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. He is best known, however, as the designer of the once ubiquitous telephone box (Craig-Martin, 14).
Michael Craig-Martin, one of the trustees assigned to investigating potential sites for the new Tate, notes that:
The Bankside building was notable for its plain red brick exterior and the powerful symmetry of its horizontal mass bisected at the centre by a single tall, square chimney. The building was articulated on three sides by a series of immense, well-detailed windows. The only decoration came from the brickwork crenellation along the building’s edging, cleverly mitigating its great bulk (Craig-Martin, 14-15).
The discovery of the Bankside Power Station opened up new vistas for the trustees of the new Tate. First of all was the issue of size: the Bankside Power Station was larger than any of them had imagined. Adjusting their expectations to include such a vast space opened up an entirely new perspective as well as a world of possibility.
Second, of all, building yet they had assumed that they would be commissioning abuilding yet here was the power station, basically intact. They now had to consider the possibility that there would be no need to raze the existing building and start over what if they were to work with the existing structure, and make changes as needed? This, clearly, would be a break from the way things were traditionally done. Thus, after visiting the Bankside Power Station, the trustees’ vision of what the new gallery could be began to change, and their preconceived notions were replaced by exciting new concepts (Craig-Martin, 15).
The existence of so many positive factors convinced the trustees that the Bankside site was the best choice as the new site of the home of modern art. Not only were the possibilities were inviting; also to be considered was the location, which was ideal; the possibility of development; and the interest and support of the local government.
Location was certainly a major consideration; this London location boasted first-rate transport facilities, including the new tube station at Southwark. In addition, there was the possibility of a river bank connection with the Millbank gallery(Craig-Martin, 15). And the local Southwark Council wasted no time in acknowledging the potential impact this could have on the local community, an area much in need of a financial and industrial boost: The local council, Southwark, recognising the potential impact of the Tate project on development and employment in this largely run-down area, enthusiastically supported it from the start (Craig-Martin, 15).
Relocation to the Bankside 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 housing major large-scale temporary exhibitions (Craig-Martin, 15). Beyond this, the possibilities seemed even more exciting: even after expansion, there would be a vast expanse of untouched space, leaving the possibilities for continued growth and capacity for even greater acquisitions wide open.
But questions of how 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 a number of modern museums, Martin and Woodrow found that for the most part,modern museums better served the interests of architects and architecture than those of art and artists. Clearly the interests of art were not the primary consideration of those chosen to design the space that would best showcase it. Many architects clearly considered designing a museum to be a prime opportunity for high-profile signature work. On the other hand few architects seemed truly to understand or be interested in the needs of art (Craig-Martin, 17).
They reported these findings to Serota and the other trustees, with the ultimate result that there was a shift in the thinking behind the architectural approach. Now, the central concern of the design of the new building would be to address the needs of art through the quality of the galleries and the range ofopportunities, both sympathetic and challenging, for showing art. While seeking the best possible architectural solution, we determined that the project would be art led not architecture led (Craig-Martin, 17).
The decision ofthe trustees was not a popular one in many circles. Architects in particular felt deprived, seeing the decision only in light of their own potential growth or lack thereof: Some, seeing this as the betrayal of a unique architectural opportunity for London, interpreted it as the result of a loss of institutional nerve (Craig-Martin, 17).
Ultimately, Herzog & de Meuron were selected to be the architects. They were the only ones whose design managed to keep the building intact without making major changes to its basic structure, to appreciate the beauty and value already inherent in the existing structure: Herzog & de Meuron’s was the only proposal that completely accepted the existing building its form, its materials and its industrial characteristics and saw the solution to be the transformation of the building itself into an art gallery (Craig-Martin, 17).
Indeed, as pointed out by Insight Guides: Tate Modern has captured the public’s imagination in a quite unprecedented way, both for its displays and its building, which establishes a magnificent presence on the South Bank (194).
Insight Guides states that the arrangement of the collection makes it both more accessible to, and more popular with, the general public (194). Instead of achronology, the work is organized by a four separate (though admittedly overlapping) themes. The displays replace a single historical account with many different stories of artistic activity and suggest their relationship to the wider social and cultural history of the 20th and early 21stcentury (Insight Guides 194).
The four themes are, basically: landscape, still life, history painting, and nudes.
Within each of these broad themes it is possible to explore a rich syntax of intention and strategy, (Blazwick & Morris, 35).
When one thinks of landscapes, a variety of scenes may come to mind: waves crashing on a rocky beach; a horizon of dark, menacing clouds; skyscrapers silhouetted against a sunset. As Blazwick & Morris point out, the genre of landscape is primarily understood as a representation of a natural or urban scene, which might 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).
As Jennifer Mundy points out, landscape is an ambiguous term and can have several overlapping meanings: much of its resonance derives from the often uncertain boundary between nature and culture, the objective and the subjective (42). Thus a landscape may be a faithful rendering of the physical world, such as the dreamy middle-class countrysides of Impressionism. Or it may be symbolic rendering of an interior landscape, such as the more obscure works of the Surrealists.
The Tate Modern’s Landscape 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 growth of the human population has made the natural landscape a topical, even urgent, subject for art (50).
Paul Moorhouse posits that among the many radical developments in the visual arts during the last hundred years, one of the most significant has been the extraordinary growth and transformation of the genre known as still life (60). By the period of Cubism, still life no longer meant an apple on a plate, but rather the complexity 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 newspaper provided a perfect vehicle for evoking the complex phenomenological relationships between such artefacts, the surrounding space and the viewer perceiving them (62).
The Tate Modern’s collection is a reflection of the evolution of the form referred to as still life, and which today defies definition. According to Moorhouse, this fusion of the actual and the symbolic has created the conditions for a remarkable vitality and diversity in contemporary art (68), a vitality and diversity reflected in the Tate Modern’s ever-changing representations of the genre.
The concept of history/memory/society is wide-ranging and ambitious, perhaps intentionally so. Public morality, politics, ideology, idealism and suffering among other themes still preoccupy artists today comments Jeremy Lewison (88). The Tate Modern collection attempts to represent these themes as they are expressed in modernity, while reflecting the continuum in which they necessarily exist. Clearly this is an ambitious task, considering the multitude of methods used to express and relate these concepts across the ages.
The study of history has descended to the micro level, posits Lewison, adding that it has been, in a sense, democratised. History is no longer solely the provenance of leaders and heroes; it is rather, in the hands of the common individual. The artists of today have followed a similar course, Lewison suggests, and, by employing the same strategies, by opening themselves to techniques and concepts derived from the human and social sciences, artists today address issues relevant to contemporary life (88).
Among the most ancient 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 the body and this has been reflected throughout history.
The final decades of the twentieth century have seen remarkable changes in the concept of the human body. Significant advances in technology, combined with the lengthened lifespans of our population, have spurred a re-thinking of what the body is indeed, at times it has seemed to become objectified. These changes are of course reflected in art.
As Wilson points out, during this time period artists began to use their own body as the expressive medium, initially creating necessarily ephemeral works in the form of what became known as Performance art (104). This, in conjunction with use of various media such as film, video, and still photography, is all part of the Tate Modern’s programme in accurately capturing and representing this genre.
The Tate Modern and the International Art World
The success of the Tate Modern may have initially seemed to eclipse the Tate Britain however, a response like this surely had to have been expected. The selection of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station as its new home was itself a newsworthy event. The subsequent choice of Herzog & de Meuron as architects caused considerable buzz in the art world and the country at large. Therefore it issmall wonder that when it finally opened its doors, the world was indeed dazzled 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 and Tate Britain as distinctive entities with the Tate organisation, were initial steps towards the renaissance of Millbank. Now, with many new galleries for displays and exhibitions, and with a future programme setting our collections withina plethora of new contexts, national and international, our role here as the 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 designed to meet the needs of the artist, as opposed to those of the architect. As Craig-Martin pointed out, while seeking the best possible architectural solution, we determined that the project would be art led not architecture led(17).
In addition, there is the simple, yet vitally important issue of size and space alone. The discovery of the Bankside Power Station opened up new vistas for the trustees of the new Tate. Bankside Power Station was larger than any of them had imagined, and the process of adjusting their expectations to include such a vast space opened up an entirely new perspective. Not only were the possibilities were inviting; also to be considered was the location, which was ideal; the possibility of development; and the interest and support of the local government.
Beyond the mere physical properties such as architecture and size are the ways in which these attributes are utilised. The vision of the Tate Modern thus far seems to be on the cutting edge. The best museums of the future will…seek to promote different modes and levels of ‘interpretation’ by subtle juxtapositions of ‘experience’ writes Nicholas Serota. He further asserts that the best museums will contain somerooms and works that will be fixed, the pole star around which the others will turn…in this way we can expect to create a matrix of changing relationshipsto be explored by visitors according to their particular interests and sensibilities (54-55).
As Deuchar hassaid, we no longer choose to relate a single narrative of British art and culture, but to explore a network of stories about art and about Britain, with our collections at its core (Foreward to Humphreys’ book). And has Nittve has pointed out “the Tate at Millbank used to be the big mother ship, where everything sat curators, administration, conservation, etc. Now we’re moving to something more like a federation (Frankel).
The Tate Modern, the necessary extension of this core, may in fact be viewed as a pole star in itself, at the forefront of the modern art scene, with a world of limitless potential ahead.
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