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Does Nicholas Serota Have The Only Formula For the Future? UPDATED

Calvin Tomkins profiles Nicholas Serota, longtime head of the Tate Gallery (-ies, really), in this week’s New Yorker, and it’s largely laudatory, as one might expect. Tomkins doesn’t shy away from saying, straightaway and approvingly, that

­Serota­ has ­been ­widely ­acclaimed— and ­often ­vilified—for­ changing ­the ­culture­ of­ Great­ Britain. The establishment, the press, and the numberless upright citizens who used to regard modern art as a joke, a foreign-born absurdity practiced by incompetents or charlatans, now embrace it with almost unseemly fervor. Tate Modern, the Tate’s new building for twentieth- and twenty-first-century art, which opened in 2000 in a derelict power station on the south side of the Thames, draws about five million visitors a year, making it the world’s most heavily attended modern-art museum.

Tompkins chronicles Serota’s rise to these heights, changing from an economics major at Cambridge to art history; running Whitechapel Gallery in the East End; co-organizing shows like ­“A ­New­ Spirit ­in­Painting,”­ at ­the ­Royal ­Academy in 1981, with ­work by the likes of deKooning, Bacon and Richter; inviting artists into the galleries during his first days at the Tate; raising private money for the Tate Modern; etc., etc. It’s not a puff piece, but you know exactly where Tomkins stands.

I’m fine with that. Serota has done marvelous things for art in London. What makes me worry a little is signaled in the headline and deck: “The Modern Man: How the Tate Gallery’s Nicholas Serota is reinventing the museum.” Those definite articles imply that his way is it — he’s leading everyone else to the museum of the future.

If so, various revealing sentences comes as early as the first column. Describing the scene inside the Tate Modern, Tomkins writes about its visitors:

They drifted around in pairs or small groups—hardly anyone was alone—chatting convivially, taking pictures of one another with their smartphones, pausing now and then to look at­ a­ work of art. [Boldface mine]

This theme continues in later passages, all challenging the definition of a museum. Examples:

We have many more people than we’d anticipated who want to hear lectures and ask questions, or just spend time here, looking at art, buying ­a ­book, having coffee with­ a­ friend….

For students and young Londoners in their twenties or thirties, the members’ room at Tate Modern is one of the cooler places to hang out on Friday and Saturday evenings, when the museum stays open until 10 P.M. The museum as a social environment, where people interact with art and with one another on their own terms, and create their own experiences, might seem to work against the close study of individual works that Serota learned from Michael Jaffe, at Cambridge. “One criticism of this building is that you can’t have an intimate experience with ­a ­work of art,” Serota conceded. “That’s something we are going to address in the new building, where we’ll have some smaller galleries, for photographs and modestly scaled works. But, if you come here at ten or eleven on­ a ­weekday morning, you can still have that experience.”

Later, Tomkins gives his blessing, by quoting an impeccable source:

John Elderfield, the greatly respected, British-born scholar who recently joined the Gagosian Gallery after many years at MOMA, believes that what’s happened at Tate Modern is “a really radical change in howpeople use museums now. It’s not only about looking closely at works of art; it’s moving around within­ a ­sort of cultural spectacle.­I ­have friends who think this is the end of civilization, but­ a lot more people are going to be in the presence of art, and some of them will look at things and be transported by them.” [Boldface mine.]

Hmmm. Does really matter if a lot more people are in the presence of art if they’re not paying attention? No one can predict how big, or small, that “some” will be.

There has to be more than one way to run a museum: Serota has a formula, and a good one, but it’s not the only one.

Here’s the link to the article, though I believe it’s behind a pay wall.

UPDATE: I’ve made a PDF of the article — NewYorker-Serota.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the New Yorker





  1. Hmmm. Is this really about the great achievements of Serota and the Tate — or about an art scene that everyone, these days, wants in on?

  2. Dear Judith,

    I was in London recently and visited Tate Modern, which I never had done before. I headed towards the permanent collection, and I was immediately struck by a Kazimir Malevich installed in the first gallery. As I was studying the painting, I heard someone come up behind me, so I stepped aside a bit to let this person enjoy the picture with me. The young man walked up, snapped a photo, and walked away. As I continued to tour the museum, I noted with some alarm that nearly everyone had a camera and that nearly everyone took photos of the works, with little or no attention paid to the subject of their photographic efforts.

    Is this what the modern art museum experience has come to?

    Susan Menconi

  3. Susan Rice says

    Visitors to museums have always been able to use the structure and interior galleries as a backdrop to their social lives. The fact that people today are constantly hooked in to a mobile social network is just a fact about how we live now. We have, and have had, multiple reasons for interacting with any cultural space. At our best, perhaps, we go to a museum or a gallery to actually engage with the art. How deeply any of us do that at any time is subject to many factors. I think that has always been true, even before the advent of the camera phone or roving social scene. Why, I wonder, are we looking with alarm at the possibility of museums and galleries as living, breathing spaces of human engagement – where the artwork might sometimes be secondary or even tertiary to our reasons for being present?

    I went to the Tate recently, specifically to see the Kusama exhibit. To my mind, it was thrillingly and wonderfully exhibited. My friend and I were highly engaged in exploring the life’s work of an artist neither one of us had previously been acquainted. The gallerists have expansive spaces to curate. They made the work accessible, awe inspiring, and even intimate at times. And then… we spent time at the Tate just conversing about art, Kusama’s work and many non-art related topics. We carelessly and quickly purused other work after having exhausted ourselves relentlessly viewing the Kusama exhibit.

    If growing crowds of people are interested in participating in the “cultural spectacle”…. I say, kudos to the Tate for helping to bridge the gap between the often inaccessible seeming works of modern art with inviting spaces (not that I found the central areas of the museum all that warm which, to my mind, makes their success at attracting large throngs all the more inspiring). Let everyone feel welcome at whatever point of entry… Perhaps in time, those who come for the coffee and conversation will also be transformed by the master works around them. If not, well, I prefer that than policing the acceptable parameters of the modern art museum going experience.

  4. Judith is right. No one formula will fit all museums. Each must find the ‘how’ within its local and national cultural habits just as a living and breathing being responds to its environment.

    On the matter of ‘what’ – the mission of a museum – it has undergone dramatic change in the last decade, thanks to the new discipline of cognitive neuroscience, based in the biology of vision:

    • Fully 50% of our cerebral cortex is involved in the processing of information coming from our eyes
    (vs. maybe 5% for hearing).
    • The retina of our eye has cells that go directly to our thinking brain and others that go to our
    • The eyes are probably the primary portal to our consciousness – and LEARNING.

    The word ‘learning’ first appeared on a museum website just a few years ago. It was the Tate site, I believe. And for good reason.

    Oh, BTW, well put, Susan. Art is democratic.

    (I write about these things.)

  5. Oops!

    I meant ” The retina of our eye has cells THAT CARRY INFORMATION directly to our thinking brain…”

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