Time for the Tates to work together
SOME months ago, Athena questioned whether Tate in its current form of four museums needed a new overarching director to replace Sir Nicholas Serota (September 28, 2016). At the time of going to press, however, Dr Maria Balshaw, presently Director of the Whitworth, University of Manchester and Manchester City Galleries, seems poised to take up this job. She is not a curator by training, but her recent experience in Manchester of running several museums should stand her in good stead for the task in hand. We wish her well. Nevertheless, we also hope that she will preside over some profound changes to this great institution.
Tate has not only been remarkably successful over the past decade, it has also enjoyed something of a charmed life in its relationship with the Government. Despite the current financial stringencies, it has suffered very small cuts relative to most State-funded cultural bodies. Over the same period, it has continued to plan projects on the most ambitious scale. The new extension of Tate Modern, for example, has cost £260 million.
Contrast that to the launch of the new English Heritage charity last year. This has responsibility for 420 historic sites around the country and was launched with a government endowment of just £80 million (and a maintenance deficit of £54 million).
Meanwhile, Tate has presented itself— particularly through Tate Modern—as an organisation that can effect social change through art. It’s an idea that has proved particularly compelling to politicians, who are always eager to claim tangible returns from their investments. In this cause, Tate has placed the pursuit of new audiences— through education, outreach and blockbuster exhibitions—at the heart of its endeavour.
One consequence is that the focus of its activity has decisively moved away from the collection in its care exclusively towards the world of contemporary art. Tate Britain in particular has greatly suffered from the change. Indeed, it’s evidence of how Tate has turned against the past that all four of its directors—including, now, Dr Balshaw—is a Modernist by interest.
To be a Modernist or otherwise, however, is not a disqualification from the task in hand. Tate Britain’s presentation of its pre1900 collection is circumscribed, unambitious and intellectually lightweight. Without abandoning its advocacy of Modern and Contemporary art, Tate as a whole should once again address its founding purpose: to tell the grand narrative of British art as a whole.
The obvious place to do this is in Tate Britain. Hopefully, it could bring to the project some of the flair and imagination apparent in its advocacy of Contemporary art. If it mananged to do this, Tate Modern and Tate Britain would be complementary rather than competing institutions. In the same process, Tate Britain, a flagging gallery, would be returned to greatness.
‘Tate Britain in particular has suffered greatly from the change