You’ve been described as the most important person to change the face of contemporary art in Britain. Is that a valid proposition?
Journalists are always looking for easy solutions, for an image that they can make and then destroy … I certainly wasn’t responsible for what happened in the Sixties. Think about the Nineties, that was really fuelled by a group of artists. I created a platform for some of them by the way in which we reorganised the Turner Prize, the way in which we started looking outwards, but these things are aided by groups of individuals in conversation, in debate. A bureaucrat like me can only help a little.
You are infamous for being modest. Tate Modern has done more than a little to influence twenty-first-century art. You are part of a template that has been sought after around the world.
Britain had been waiting for a modern-art museum for a long time. The Tate was trying hard to fulfil the responsibility fulfilled in New York by the Whitney Museum and by the Museum of Modern Art, but all in one building. We needed dedication to British art and dedication to international modern art. Peggy Guggenheim suggested creating a museum of modern art in London in 1938. It took another sixty years to make it.
And possibly me.
Today Tate has four major sites and nearly seventy thousand works by both British and international artists. Serota has been responsible for much of that expansion. He keeps plans for building projects in his office along with records of acquisitions and exhibitions for both Tate Britain and Tate Modern.
How does the individual affect cultural birth in a city like London, which has a great cultural history all its own?
We have to create conditions in which young people encounter brilliant minds. That means having good art schools, putting young people in contact with brilliant designers, brilliant engineers and brilliant artists. Artists and designers don’t just emerge out of nowhere. It’s that conjunction of interests that makes a difference. We all learn from teachers, we all learn from mentors. We learn from example, and then we create something else.
Is it an incremental process?
It can be. But there are situations where three or four, five or six, individuals come together and spark off of each other, which is what we saw in the late Eighties around Damien Hirst.
I probably have to keep my cards a little bit closer to my chest in order to achieve what I want to achieve
An institution like Tate Modern not only acts as a platform but also as a place of education and inspiration. Did you have any preconceived ideas about how you were going to transform the Tate, or was it an organic process?
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My ambition was to connect London to the rest of the world. I grew up in a situation in which I watched important exhibitions being made in small museums in Continental Europe. I also watched major exhibitions being made in Paris and New York. Very few of those exhibitions were avant-garde; all were important, large historical surveys. I set up originally in Whitechapel to make a place in the UK that was the equivalent to any of the small museums (particularly in Germany, Belgium and Holland) that have a commitment to showing artists as they are emerging and to do so in a consistent way. Then you grow a public, and they grow an audience, and then you grow an influence. Then you provide a repository of knowledge and information and energy that is appealing to young artists. When I came to the Tate, people had been saying, ‘The great exhibitions pass London by.’ I had the ambition that the Tate should be the place that had the expertise to make such shows, but that could also become part of a world that can command such shows.
Serota by the spiral staircase designed by Caruso St John as part of a £45 million renovation of Tate Britain.
So you effectively internationalised the London art scene?
Yes. I was fortunate because I was working at a time when Norman Rosenthal was being very ambitious at the Royal Academy. What he did there was in some way a precursor of this activity.
You’ve been described by journalists as tall, thin and austere, with craggy, animated features and piercing eyes. It’s a functional look essentially. Which of these characteristics have helped you move the mountains that you have moved?
I probably have to keep my cards a little bit closer to my chest in order to achieve what I want to achieve. If I tell everybody before I begin, there are plenty of people in this country who will say, ‘Oh, we don’t need that’ or whatever. People look back on what I did at the Whitechapel as a success, but at the time, it wasn’t regarded by the Establishment as a success. I was never invited to join an Arts Council committee. I was actually once invited to go to an exhibition committee, and I went to the meeting, and then about three weeks later I was informed that they had made a mistake. There wasn’t enough space on the committee and they had not really intended to invite me. Most of the time when I was at the Whitechapel, and then early on at the Tate, I received enormous criticism. I mean titanic.
Were you a bit like Samson knocking down the Temple?
I’ve always loved the Tate; I’ve never wanted to knock down the Temple. What I wanted to do was create a space that artists had respect for and an engagement with. You could say that in terms of contemporary art, the Tate had kind of lost its way. I just wanted to recover that.
Serota on the terrace of Tate Modern’s Members Room overlooking St Paul’s Cathedral.
Making institutions seems to be something that you have mastered to a T. An old power station, a derelict gasworks… Are renewal and regeneration significant factors within the culture of a city?
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There are two things I’d say to that. The first is that, until very recently, most contemporary art has been on the margins of British society. I don’t think it is at all a coincidence that the original Tate was created on the site of a prison in a marshland. Why? Because when Henry Tate proposed giving his collection of modern British painting to the nation, they said to put them in Trafalgar Square, at the National Gallery. Then there was a suggestion that they should go to South Kensington. But the directors of the V&A and other museums in that area said, ‘No, we don’t want that here.’ So he was offered this redundant prison site in 1892. When we went to St Ives, it was a redundant gasworks. When we went to Liverpool, it was a redundant dockyard. When we went to create the Tate Modern, we found an abandoned power station. We are always at the margins.
When we first announced that we would go to Bankside, no-one knew where this was in London. Even ten days before the opening, there were trustees asking how people would get there. It was a part of London that had been neglected over many years. The Tate has gone to these sorts of sites because it has always had a shortage of resources. It uses its resources in the most creative way that it can, and it gets much better value for money onsite. But of course, in choosing that site and having the confidence to know that it would work, there were two factors that made a difference. One was the realisation that most artists preferred showing their work in converted buildings. The second reason was that it was an effective part of the city, a part that still had potential. By going there, we could improve the city, add something to the city.
We are a national institution, and we will remain as such, I think. That is one of our strengths, that independence
What do you think it has added to the city in economic and social terms?
Partially because we have encouraged Southwark to take a part in our planning and some of the wealth, some of the benefits are starting to make their way slowly into the borough. The area immediately south of Southwark Street is changing. It’s a place where small creative industries and businesses can congregate, and it’s become a centre for creative ambition.
What in your opinion distinguishes London from Paris or New York as a cultural and creative hub?
It is different now than it was in the 1960s; London is in a lot stronger position than it was. I think that culture is created when you mix cultures, when you bring people together that don’t necessarily have a shared view of the world. London is a much more exciting city now than it was in the 1960s. The creativity that was here in the Sixties in some way ebbed because it was monocultural and heavily influenced by what was happening in America. Well, it was British, but how do you define British? It was a certain kind of British that was strongly connected with American culture. Now (and it is something that the Olympics in some way have helped us to develop and maintain), London is a much more diverse city than it was. London has been incredibly helped by its geographic position in comparison with New York because of the move east in terms of economic wealth and the direction everyone is looking in. I can remember in the late Eighties people sincerely asking if London would survive as a financial centre with Frankfurt developing in the way that it was. I don’t think anybody would ask that question today.
Master of all he surveys: Serota on the terrace of Tate Modern with the Shard, Europe’s tallest building, in the background.
You pre-empted my next question, which is to do with the financial strengths of London. Would there be the same backing for contemporary art and culture in terms of sponsorship and patronage without this financial muscle?
The presence of people in the city who come from elsewhere and who see the city as a place in which they want to live, can live, socialise, engage in culture and engage in commerce obviously makes a big difference within the market, and obviously makes a big difference within public institutions, because many of those people have been extremely generous in helping those public institutions advance their programmes.
You’ve taken it upon yourself to raise a large amount of money …
Too much, yes, for Tate Modern.
A quarter of a billion pounds. Is that process ageing you by the minute or is it an enjoyable task?
It’s an enjoyable challenge more than an enjoyable task. It’s a good cause; it has to be done. As the building slowly emerges, we see that there will be all kinds of opportunities within it that are not present in the existing Tate Modern. We can create a new model for museums of contemporary art as platforms for discussion and exchange of ideas.
Built by the rich.
Funded by people who care about society.
In some instances, yes.
Art is opening our minds to the world, and it doesn’t begin or end at the ages of fifteen to twenty-five, it continues right the way through
There is an essential dichotomy, isn’t there, in all this? You are basically taking from the rich to feed the minds of the masses, if that is a fair but crude interpretation of the process. You are fundraising by means of your platform-creating, your ability and your power. This enables you to centralise these resources and pass them on to a general public.
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The great thing about Britain is that we have this tradition of free public museums. It’s supported by the state, but also supported by individuals. They are fundamentally situations that serve the public rather than serving the rich individuals that you are describing. That is one of our great strengths, and if we can co-opt people and get further cooperation for that framework, those are the terms in which we take the money. You can give a lot of money to the Tate, but you don’t immediately become a trustee. Trustees are appointed by the Prime Minister. We are a national institution, and we will remain as such, I think. That is one of our strengths, that independence. We don’t belong to the public sector. The same is true of the universities; they are highly dependent on a combination of private and public funding. They have been over a long period of time, and again, it’s one of our strengths.
But education is a basic social duty. Do the same principles apply to art as well?
Art is education. It is opening our minds to the world, and it doesn’t begin or end at the ages of fifteen to twenty-five, it continues right the way through. These are educational institutions. What is education? It is opening yourself to different kinds of experience. That’s what museums do at their best. When you go to Tate Modern, you are experiencing another culture’s point of view. You are understanding how that person is seeing the world.
Do you feel that art education should be more systemic than it is currently in the curriculum, national or otherwise?
Well, it’s a left-brain, right-brain kind of argument, isn’t it? Should you build muscles in your legs rather than your whole body? It’s about the whole person, and that whole person has to express themself through art and culture as much as through language. We probably have completely understandable reasons, but we place too much stress on the command of language rather than of images or the command of visual strengths or capabilities. Recently, Richard Rogers had an 80th-birthday celebration at the Royal Academy. There was a report from his first year as a member of the Architectural Association, saying that he could barely express himself, he couldn’t string sentences together, and various other complaints of this kind. It was all about language. This is a man who has made some of the most remarkable and beautiful buildings in the last forty or fifty years; leaving the Association, he was already noted as an important and talented architect. In spite of his dyslexia and his inability to use language, he uses language in a very beautiful way.
You once were quoted as saying that you would die at the Whitechapel. How much was that institution dependent on you?
You can’t see it now, but there was a little mural painting that showed a portrait of one of the early directors of the Whitechapel, and underneath it said that he had been killed in action in the First World War. One of my daughters, at the age of about six, asked if I would die at the Whitechapel, and I said, ‘No, I’ll probably be killed in action.’ I didn’t die at the Whitechapel, and I don’t think I’ll die at the Tate. I hope. You never know.
Main image at top: Nicholas Serota in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries in front of dock, the 2014 Tate Britain Commission by artist Phyllida Barlow (the mother of artist Eddie Peake). A 1937 addition, the Duveen Galleries were the first public galleries in England designed specifically for the display of sculpture. Barlow’s commission was her largest and most ambitious installation piece to date in London.
London Burning: Portraits from a Creative City, Author & Editor Hossein Amirsadeghi, Executive Editor: Maryam Eisler, is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £58 (hardback). All images are copyright Transglobe Publishing.
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