Jan Dalley This is something of a birthday celebration because the building we’re sitting in opened to the public 10 years ago. It’s converted from a former power station on the south bank of the Thames, and has become the mecca of contemporary art in London. In the past decade, extraordinary changes have happened, not only to this building and this area but to the cultural life of London and the UK itself.
Nick, if you had to come up with just one or two things from the enormous achievement of the past 10 years, the things that give you the most satisfaction, what would they be?
Nicholas Serota Satisfaction, I’m not sure, but images yes. Probably some of those great installations by Louise Bourgeois, where she created three huge towers that people could climb. That was the first installation in the Turbine Hall. And then perhaps Anish Kapoor’s “Marsyas”, that extraordinary red trumpet that blasted its way right the way from the east to the west end of the Turbine Hall. Or Carsten Höller’s slides: going down one of those slides from the fifth floor to the first in 35 seconds was one of the experiences of my life. I particularly remember arriving at the bottom and finding the assembled press corps waiting for me. All hoping that I’d broken my arm.
Simon Schama One of the things Tate Modern has done, beyond I think anyone’s imaginings, is to make the connection with a broader public. Have you been surprised at how much of a popular, democratic institution this place has become over the course of 10 years?
NS Well, we always had the ambition that it would be that. We confidently expected that in the first year we’d get 3m visitors and then it would drop back to 2m, which was the sort of number that one found at [Paris’s] Pompidou or at the Tate as it was. So to have 5m in the first year, and then to see it drop to four, and then build back to five, as it now is, is an astonishing record for Tate Modern. It comes I think from the building, and it comes from the way in which the art has been shown. And it has, as you say, become an institution that people regard as very approachable.
SS Do you think it was something about London as well, what happened to London at the time? Did you hit the perfect moment when London seemed to flower as an international city? There were money and ideas marrying each other in a great kind of fertile explosion.
NS I think if we’d tried to open Tate Modern in 1979, we would have had a more difficult time. We hit a good moment from the point of view of the art as well because it was a moment when a generation had emerged. The extraordinary thing about Britain is that we do produce these successive generations of artists who have currency not only in this country but also internationally. You go back to Caro and Hodgkin and Bridget Riley in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Hockney and others. And then you go forward, to Richard Deacon and others, in the 1980s.
It was a very good moment to open a new museum of modern art. It was astonishing that every other capital city in the world had a museum of modern art; London didn’t.
SS Were you helped by things like Charles Saatchi’s interest in being a self-publicising patron of fizzing contemporary art?
NS I don’t think Tate Modern would exist but for what Charles Saatchi did in [his north London gallery in] Boundary Road from the mid-1980s. He suddenly made available 30,000 sq ft of warehouse space and showed art with a kind of confidence and ambition that we’d never seen here before. And I think it stimulated the artists; there’s no doubt at all that when Damien and his colleagues at Goldsmiths College created [the exhibition] Freeze in 1988 they were inspired in part by what Charles had done at Boundary Road. It went on from there. Charles also brought a lot of collectors to London and made London seem a place you had to visit if you wanted to see contemporary art.
SS And he was not quite from the art world.
NS The interesting thing is Charles came from a very different world, the advertising world. He also set out to collect initially American art; he bought very little British art. And then eventually bought more art from Europe and elsewhere. But his commitment to collecting artists in depth was astonishing, and then showing them in a very unashamed, wholehearted, in-your-face way.
SS Say something about how the idea for Tate Modern itself and the possibility of this particular building first came about.
NS Well, the idea of a museum of modern art in London was not my idea. It was probably Peggy Guggenheim’s idea in the late 1930s, when she actually appointed a director for a new museum of modern art, namely Herbert Read. They thought the Tate was dull and London needed something, and she said, “let’s have a museum of modern art.” Well, the war came, she went to America, it didn’t emerge except in the form of the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts]. And then periodically people had been saying there needs to be a museum of modern art in London, separate from the Tate or as part of the Tate.
And when I arrived [as director of Tate, in 1988] it seemed to me that the Tate and its building wasn’t the place where you could create a great museum of modern art for a huge capital city of the kind that we have.
SS This building actually had architectural ambitions for a different purpose.
NS Yes, this building, the Bankside power station, had architectural ambition: Giles Gilbert Scott, a great architect, was commissioned to build a building that would be a fitting power station opposite St Paul’s cathedral, in the late 1940s. We were looking for a site, someone mentioned to me that this was empty – it had been redundant for 15 years – and I almost had to look on a map and work out where Bankside was. It was a neglected part of the city.
One of my colleagues came and saw it, and when he came back to the Tate that morning he said, “Oh, it was far too big.” So I said, “Well, describe it to me.” And as he spoke it sounded interesting. Anyway, then we came and had a proper look at the building and it seemed to have all kinds of possibilities.
SS Were the turbines still in the Turbine Hall?
NS The turbines were still in the Turbine Hall. I think the most exciting moment was actually to climb up through the building and to stand on the roof. And to look out and feel that you could almost touch St Paul’s cathedral. And you realised then that it really was in the centre of the city.
SS And was that part of it, this relationship with other monumental buildings across the river? Unlike the Pompidou Centre, the contemporary, custom-built building that happened in Paris?
NS I think we were responding in part to the fact that over the previous 30-40 years artists had colonised industrial buildings and used them to show their art to great effect. We had a sense that in the Turbine Hall we’d be able to make great installations of the kind that one couldn’t necessarily make in a new building.
SS There was a striking place in St Katharine’s Docks, wasn’t there?
NS Yes, that was the late 1960s. Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgley and others moved in there in the late 1960s and made that a space in which artists worked, even if they didn’t show their work. But then there were other inspiring examples of what could be done in a former industrial building.
NS We ran a competition. We had, in the final analysis, six architects, and David Chipperfield was one of those and he proposed taking the chimney down, removing the chimney. But we felt we had to keep it. It’s a beacon in the city.
JD Can we move on to the wider developments of the past 10 years in Britain? It has been a time of extraordinary cultural explosion. Simon, from New York, your other home, how does it look from that side?
SS You’ll be happy to know it looks even better. Very interesting, the way in which the Museum of Modern Art decided to modernise in a kind of grand patrician way, no expense spared, really thinking about the aesthetic grandeur of housing an extraordinary collection. Everybody has mixed feelings about that now and, actually, the kind of conceptual grip on what the Museum of Modern Art is supposed to be doing in New York is extremely shaky.
It actually makes the issue of needing to work more creatively with a more limited collection look even better and braver, I think.
And I was going to come on to that very question, Nick, actually. There were issues in the early days of Tate Modern. It was clear from the beginning, from Louise Bourgeois’ fantastic installations, that the Turbine Hall was going to be this dramatic, theatrical, spectacular space, into which you could put the kind of contemporary art that Britain needed.
The issue was, then, how to deal with the permanent collection. And the early history of the installation was brave but there were critics of it, including me, actually. What was the thinking behind doing it thematically?
NS I think, well, the thinking was very clear. And that was that we couldn’t go on showing the collection in the standard way in which most museums of modern art – indeed most museums – show their collections, essentially chronologically. Because it didn’t really reflect the way in which artists were thinking; it didn’t really reflect the way in which people were thinking about the 20th century. Not so much as a linear history but as a whole series of episodes that interconnect in very interesting ways. It was about establishing the relationship between the contemporary and the past that really motivated us to try and think of a new way of showing the collection.
It’s true that we’ve now reverted to a principle which does have some broad sense of chronological sequence, in that there are now four moments in the 20th century that act as hubs around which other things revolve. But we still make these extraordinary juxtapositions between old and new. And the interesting thing is that in spite of the criticisms from 2000, 2001, 2002, you go to museums across the world ...
SS ... and they’re all doing it.
NS And they’re all doing it. But, actually, I would say they’re not doing it as wholeheartedly as the team here is doing it. It’s always said we did it in that [non-chronological] way because we didn’t have such a strong collection as MoMA, and if we’d done a simple chronological hang we’d have been exposed as having a weak collection. There’s a degree of truth in that. But the fundamental reason was because we wanted to explore the new relationships between the present and the past.
SS Do you think it was too complicated for most of the people coming through the doors, and now it’s slightly less so – you’re giving them story as well as theme?
NS There is a little bit of story now. I think the principal difficulty with the scheme, the original scheme, was that it depended very strongly on the relationship from one room to the next. And as soon as you took out some pieces of the jigsaw the whole narrative disintegrated. And I think that we’ve learnt now that you have to have a greater degree of flexibility that allows you to take pieces in and out, and yet keep a sense of the whole. And give people still a sense of where they’re moving forward or back in time.
SS You’ve had some wonderful temporary exhibitions over the years. Can you give us a sense of some of the things that made you, since you don’t want to be satisfied, like all perfectionists, happiest?
NS I suppose you have to begin with Matisse Picasso . Incredible collaboration with the Pompidou and with MoMA, bringing together these two great artists of the 20th century, gladiators, incredibly conscious of what each other was doing at any given moment.
Or the Hélio Oiticica exhibition , an exhibition that sadly will now never be able to be made again because so many of the works were destroyed tragically in a fire last year in Rio. He was an incredible pioneer, Brazilian, who worked in London in the late 1960s, early 1970s.
SS Has the relative, I won’t say inflexibility, but relative modesty of the space you’ve got available for temporary exhibitions been a frustration? You’re now seeking more space in the new building that is going to happen?
NS The new building will give us a more open and flexible space for temporary exhibitions. But we won’t significantly increase the number of exhibitions that we do. It will give us great new spaces for learning.
JD Could you describe the new building? It’s an addition to the back of this existing building; what sort of proportion of this space is it?
NS It will sit on the south side, the side everyone currently neglects, because they think of Tate Modern as facing the river. But my guess is that when we do this extension the whole way in which the building works will change. That is because you’re going to be able to walk through the building, and then across [the river Thames using] the Millennium Bridge, 12 hours a day. People will use it as a short cut, a way of moving through the city. So it will become a part of the city in a different sense.
It’s an entirely new structure, designed by Herzog and de Meuron. It’s very unusual, actually, that a building is extended by the same architects who designed it ... Normally you fall out with your architect, you swear never to use him again. We’ll also have these remarkable spaces below ground, off the Turbine Hall, these oil tank spaces. There were originally three oil tanks built below the lawns on the south side, 60ft across, 25ft high, great cylinders of space below the ground.
SS Expecting to have a phone call from Richard Serra immediately?
NS I thought Richard would love to work in there.
JD Is it going to be ready for our Olympic year?
NS We’re certainly going to have those tanks open in time for the Olympics in 2012, yes. The building will follow on from that and gradually emerge over the next two or three years, depending on how we get on with our fundraising. We need to raise just over £200m; we’ve raised £75m so far. But I think we should be in a position to announce some more funding soon. We broke ground in January and we’ve started work on the foundations of the building.
SS Can you say something about what you see happening then over the next five years both to Tate Modern generally and to contemporary art in Britain? There’s no sense that contemporary art has shot its bolt and is running out of ideas; it doesn’t feel that way to someone flying in from New York.
NS No, I think that London is as vital as it has been at any time. And I think the interesting thing is the influx of people from abroad ... there’s [been] a much more open attitude to the world at large in London over the past 15 years. It’s just endemic within the system now that we look across the world, rather than thinking about just little Britain or indeed even smaller Europe. So what you’ll see at the Tate in particular is Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist, in the Turbine Hall this year, artists from the Middle East and north Africa; artists from sub-Saharan Africa and from Latin America. I think we will be much more genuinely international over the next five years. That’ll be the big change.
A fuller video version of this interview can be found at www.tate.org.uk