Lunch with the FT: Nicholas Serota

“The boat made an unscheduled stop,” apologises a windswept Nicholas Serota, as he takes a seat opposite me at a corner table in Tate Modern’s seventh-floor restaurant. Below me, the Tate-to-Tate catamaran, decorated with Damien Hirst spots, pulls away. It runs between Tate Modern and Tate Britain, where Serota – director of both, plus Tate outposts at Liverpool and St Ives – has his office.

Serota, who is tall and very thin, with craggy animated features, piercing eyes and an austere, functional look – black suit, white shirt, rimless glasses – is, in fact, on time for lunch: his watch is always set 10 minutes fast. He glances appreciatively around the loud, packed restaurant, its walls daubed with more spots – these being the cheerful red-and-white motifs of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, whose Tate exhibition recently closed – and orders a plate of olives and bread, and a jug of tap water.

“At the beginning”, he says, “there was debate about whether this place would be for the St John’s Wood and Notting Hill crowd to spend lots of money, or somewhere good quality but accessible for all. That’s what we went for: better a destination gallery with a good café attached than the other way round.”

Destination gallery is an understatement: Serota, 66, heads the world’s most visited, most influential modern art museum, which, since its launch in 2000, has transformed the presentation and understanding of contemporary art around the globe. Next week he pushes these boundaries further with the inauguration of the Tanks: these 30-metre wide concrete oil tanks, dating from the building’s days as a power station, will become the first museum galleries anywhere dedicated to film, installation and performance pieces. Their completion represents the initial stage of a £215m Tate Modern expansion, due to finish in 2016.

“You can tell a lot about what society thought of contemporary art over the past hundred years from Tate’s sites,” he says. “The Millbank site was a former prison, Liverpool’s Albert Dock [site] a derelict warehouse, St Ives a gas works bombed by the Luftwaffe. We always go where no one else wants to go. We’ve given this building a life; it had been empty since 1981. In 1993, a trustee against the Tate Modern plan asked me, ‘How will people even get there?’”

Nibbling olives but ignoring the bread, Serota says the former power station always offered possibilities for expansion. “But we forbade the architects from looking at the tanks in the early stages because they were too attractive. We wouldn’t have known how to use them.”

Nor was it envisaged that Tate Modern’s popularity – annual attendances of 5m far outstrip the 2m predicted – would drive expansion so quickly, or that art-making would shift so dramatically towards installation and performative work, demanding new exhibition spaces. “Audiences seek different forms of participation and engagement,” Serota says. “There’s an appetite for the immersive experience, both physical and phenomenological like James Turrell, or emotional like Bill Viola.”

But, I say, no one really likes video. “We are all sick of biennales where it takes 20 minutes to see every work,” Serota admits. “But if it’s shown properly, it works. The Tanks give us the opportunity to respond to the changing practice of artists.”

The waiter arrives. At artists’ receptions, I have observed that Serota is a sparse eater, so I vow to follow his lead rather than appear greedy. But he courteously insists that I choose first. We both pick light starters – squash tart for me, asparagus for him – which arrive quickly and are consumed without comment.

“Only recently have I begun to understand what it felt like to be Picasso and Braque in 1907 – absolutely determined to bury the previous century,” Serota continues. “The initial years of this millennium seemed much like the final years of the last but by 2008-09 the 1990s felt so far behind. Of course, lots of artists who emerged [then] continue to make good work, like Peter Doig, but the real energy has gone into photography, film, new media.”

The challenge for a museum of Tate’s stature is to move rapidly enough to identify and acquire new works of lasting importance while disdaining passing fashions. Yet time is art’s only real judge. Does this responsibility keep him awake at night?

“Not much keeps me awake but I do worry about buying things, especially if I’ve missed things,” he replies. “Buying for Tate is a huge privilege. All we can do is put down first markers, a frame we know will be modified by history, as artists who come later either do or don’t respond to things we’ve collected.

“I would love to have bought Damien [Hirst]’s fly piece ‘A Thousand Years’ but Saatchi got there just ahead of us. The other piece I saw at the time was [Rachel Whiteread’s] ‘Ghost’, which Saatchi had already bought. It’s a difficult thing for an institution to do. You say, ‘This is an artist, 27 years old, who’s made this piece out of plaster – conservators say will cost a lot to look after, should we buy it?’ The answer is, ‘Yes, we should have.’”

Our main courses arrive: a simple paprika-dusted fillet of plaice with lemon-roasted new potatoes and a pepper ragout for me, and for Serota a towering concoction of bream poised on a stack of mussels, in turn wedged on a bed of tarragon-infused tomatoes, the whole topped with a heap of crispy samphire. He surveys this wryly – as if it were a metaphor for the balancing act of his job – and stabs instead at the accompanying broccoli spears.

Serota is modest to the point of self-erasure about his role in establishing Tate Modern: “That London needed a museum of modern art was not an especially original idea – Peggy Guggenheim tried to set one up here in 1938,” he says. But as the grandson of a Russian-Jewish cabinet maker and the son of Stanley, a civil engineer, and Beatrice, a politician who was Harold Wilson’s minister of health, he is a born builder, democrat and leader, and his power is the most controversial thing about Tate.

With a grasp of tiny detail and the bigger picture alike, he controls every aspect of his museums. Although staff universally praise “Nick” as accessible and efficient, one joked that he even chooses the crisps on sale in the café. Several effective curators who share his vision are long-termers, but he has not been so successful at holding on to his immediate deputies: Tate Modern had three directors – Lars Nittve, Vicente Todoli, and now Chris Dercon – in its first decade. The Bankside museum in particular – classless yet commanding, playful yet serious, restrained yet intellectually broad-ranging – has been identified as “the house that Nick built”.

Those values were formed by public service at home and at school – Serota was head boy and games captain at Haberdashers’ Aske’s boys’ school in north London. His parents were shocked when he switched from reading economics to art history at Cambridge – he was “undoubtedly in love with Piero della Francesca” – but his first job was in the public sector at the Arts Council. At 27 he became director of Modern Art Oxford, moving to head the Whitechapel Gallery by the time he was 30.

He overhauled both and mounted exhibitions of international artists then little-known or liked in Britain: Joseph Beuys, Carl Andre, Eva Hesse – all pioneers of conceptualism. And, though his own taste is broad-ranging, Serota has been strongly identified with that movement. Tate Modern, through Turbine Hall commissions such as Olafur Eliasson’s “Weather Project”, not only shows but encourages the making of accessible conceptual art on a sensational scale.

So effective is his vision that when you visit Bankside it is hard to conceive of a modern art museum being any other way. Yet I wonder whether large numbers of people can be enticed by such opening Tanks projects as Eddie Peake’s film exploring sexuality and voyeurism, or “Dress Vehicles”, Haegue Yang’s invitation to participate in performative sculptures.

As Serota unpicks the installation on his plate, I venture that Tate has sacrificed old-fashioned art connoisseurship for theory-driven interpretations. Like many critics, I howled at his hang of Tate Modern’s permanent collection along non-chronological lines when the museum was inaugurated in 2000: Matisse nudged against Marlene Dumas, works by the same artists were separated across different floors, there was no sense of historical epochs or landmark moments. “Chronology is not a tool of art-historical interpretation which can be used at one moment, discarded the next,” wrote the eminent critic David Sylvester in the London Review of Books; “it’s an objective reality, built into the fabric of the work.” Despite the protests, a thematic emphasis has been maintained in subsequent reorganisations, based around subjects such as “Poetry and Dream” or “Energy and Process”.

“Tate aspires to show an argument, put beautifully,” Serota responds. “You can’t just show art from 1900 to 2000 – you have to be more adventurous, use the strengths of the collection. Tate’s collection is not as strong in early 20th-century works as Moma or Paris – it didn’t seem worthwhile doing a minor version of that. What was worthwhile was putting art now alongside that work.”

Is this smart diplomacy – making a virtue out of a weakness – or, even more cleverly, using perceived inadequacy to postmodern, anarchic effect? However, as I have argued, Tate’s collection is not that weak, and the number of its early masterpieces not on display at all strikes me as scandalous: Cezanne’s proto-cubist “The Grounds of the Château Noir” (1900-06) and portrait “The Gardener Vallier” (1906); Bonnard’s shimmering “The Table” (1925, given to Tate in 1926). Tate has seven works by Chagall and none is on show; nor are any of its six excellent Modiglianis. Yet these are more significant, affecting works than much of what is exhibited at Bankside – Lamia Joreige’s worthy video interviews (2006) about the Lebanese civil war, or Grenville Davey’s dim circular sculpture “Ce&Ce” (1989), to pick just a couple of examples.

“The problem with a chronological survey is that early rooms feel strong and familiar, later ones very temporary,” says Serota. “Part of our purpose was to make new favourites from art of the past 20 years. Now, when we don’t have on view Cornelia Parker’s “Cold Dark Matter” or Rebecca Horn’s hanging piano “Concert for Anarchy”, we get as many complaints as when we have a second-tier Matisse in storage. But no, we don’t take down ‘The Snail’.”

According to Serota, in an age of mass travel and online information, museums no longer need to “construct textbook histories on the wall”, though landmark exhibitions remain important: “With a show like Matisse Picasso you capture a new audience and build authority and trust”. He continues: “From 1890 to the 1970s, public libraries were very important, giving opportunities. People across all classes used them, helping social cohesion. Now museums are taking on that role.”

I finish my plaice; Serota is still crunching through his samphire. “This will keep me going through meetings,” he says. I ask if many such meetings are about fundraising. “We couldn’t do what we do at Tate without private money. The danger for me is I inevitably spend a lot of time in certain company and, if I’m not careful, I can forget that there’s another whole side of society that has more stake in Tate than those I’m trying to get money from. People need to find things here that they would never find in other places. You won’t get some kid from Southwark going off to Savile Row to see Louise Bourgeois but they will come to see her here.”

The waiter removes our plates; Serota orders a camomile tea. I say it is ironic that, as it shapes British public culture, his generation – which includes Neil MacGregor at the British Museum and Nicholas Penny at the National Gallery – are products of the egalitarian 1960s, yet are exercising authority just as the art world is challenged by dealers and collectors flaunting vast wealth.

“Neil and I are products of a certain moment, a postwar, slightly utopian view of society which embraced the welfare state but did not rule out entrepreneurship. I sometimes think that the world of money is a bit younger than us.” Serota lives in King’s Cross with his second wife, Teresa Gleadowe. On his walls are prints by Hogarth and Richard Hamilton, but “nothing of any real value”. He does not collect, and would have to declare personal purchases to Tate. “Occasionally, I see something but it would give a very odd signal if I buy it and the artist isn’t represented by Tate.”

He loves going to visit artists – “Their insights into the world are one of the things that make life worth living” – and his deep engagement with their work is evident in brilliant recent shows he curated: retrospectives of Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Howard Hodgkin. Curating is “the best thing I do! But I can’t make too many shows. We have many talented people.”

He has no fixed retirement date: appointed in 1988 for a seven-year term, his contract was renewed in 1995 and 2002, before, in 2008, he was made a “permanent employee” – unprecedented at Tate. But as he drains his tea I cannot resist raising the question of his successor. He hopes it will happen “quite soon”. “When my daughter was five, I suppose I hadn’t been at home as much as I should have been, and she asked whether I would die at the Whitechapel. There is a plaque at the Whitechapel to artists killed in action. Maybe I will be killed in action here! But I shouldn’t outstay my welcome. Everything needs renewal. I don’t expect to be carried feet-first out of the Tate.”

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s visual arts critic

Restaurant at Tate Modern

Bankside, London SE1

Squash and Stinking Bishop tart £6.95

Asparagus, toasted cashews, orange citronette, black pepper mascarpone £7.25

Fish of the day, fresh from Newlyn boats: plaice fillet, lemon-roasted new potatoes and pepper ragout £14.95

Pan-fried sea bream, cockles and mussels, tomato and tarragon sauce with crispy samphire £16.25

Broccoli spears £3.50

Camomile tea £2.20

Service charge £6.38

Total (including service) £57.48

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