The Times, May 1995
Sacha Craddock reports on why the nation's home of modern art had to make room for the contemporary
Despite public assumptions to the contrary, the Tate Gallery has a patchy record on contemporary art. There has just not been enough contemporary work at the Tate to encourage any real discussion, and recent attempts to steer the Turner Prize away from immediate associations with novelty and fashion reflect a recognition of how serious the situation has become. Although the Tate found sponsorship, on and off, for displays of new art during the 1980s, it is necessary to look back to the 1970s for real evidence of a lively relationship between the Tate and the art of the time. Each one person show by an established artist carries its own rationale. An expensive catalogue reflects extensive academic research and guarantees the work to be already part of history. The smaller, single-gallery showings for established British artists such as Bridget Riley and the current one for Bernard Cohen do the same, but to a lesser extent. Until, and perhaps even after, the split between the gallery's twin functions takes place — and the Tate Gallery of Modern Art opens at Bankside, leaving the Tate Gallery of British Art at Millbank — there is much to be done.
Nicholas Serota says that when he first arrived as director of the Tate his priority was to get the permanent collection on view. The various modern and historical collections that make up the bulk of work shown and stored had to take precedence over the new. The closer you come to the present, it seems, the more problems there are. The Tate has to be wary of making obvious endorsements: not only is there a shortage of money, but as a purchaser the gallery carries a disproportionate potential influence. Should the very new be purchased? Should everyone wait? Does experience deserve greater recognition? Not all contemporary art comes in convenient packages anyway. Artists make installations and films; they do performances, collaborate and hunt in packs.
It would be inappropriate for the Tate to function in exactly the same way as such public showcases for new art as the Serpentine, the Camden Arts Centre or the Ikon gallery in Birmingham, and it would be wrong for it to act as an outpost of a commercial gallery. Serota says, though, that "the Tate does have a responsibility for the way contemporary art is seen". So the creation of a permanent new space for contemporary work at the back of the main building is a timely recognition of a need. Although Serota says that for the last four years he has wanted to show a broader range of the newest art, "it is not the Tate's purpose to discover young artists that have never been heard of, but instead to show serious work; to show the concerns of artists working today in Europe, America, this country and elsewhere".
He wants also to give "the younger curators a chance to work with younger artists, which hasn't happened before, except on the Turner Prize". Frances Morris — who, with Sean Rainbird, will be selecting the displays — says that it is important that they get the atmosphere right. They must be able to generate excitement about the subject.
Shows will last only six weeks and the turnaround between them will be just two. Instead of individual catalogues, there is to be a small publication with a survey at the end of each year. The first show, of a video installation by Matthew Barney, is unusual in that it is already owned by the Tate. In future, artists will be invited to respond to the setting; much of the work will not be complete until it is opened; and it will not necessarily be purchased. It is time for less polarisation, for visitors to feel able to question whether some thing is good art, rather than whether it is art at all.
Serota's desire "to do a lot, so tha people get used to it" is an attempt to redress the balance and begin to shift attention away from concentration or the use of strange and unusual materials. The hope is that the range of media used over this next four shows (video, wooden sculpture, glass and sound and lead-casts) from Matthew Barney, Marc Quinn, Genevieve Cadieux and Miroslaw Balka will come to seem unimportant. As Serota says, perhaps the response will soon cease to be "Wow! Gosh! The Tate is showing a video! Does this mean the end of painting?"
© Sacha Craddock - May 1995