Serota - a Medici or a Disney?

September 22 2016

Image of Serota - a Medici or a Disney?

Picture: Spectator

The post-match analysis of Sir Nicholas Serota's 30 year tenure at Tate has begun, and here's Stephen Bayley's verdict in The Spectator. He says Serota will be remembered as more of a Disney figure than a Medici:

And now he leaves for the Arts Council. Experts in large-scale pattern-recognition will detect something here. Namely, the delusion that art flourishes in bureaucracies and can be systematically administered by committees. Of course, historic exhibitions of Picasso, Matisse and Hopper were rightly huge successes for Tate, but they would have happened without Nick Serota. His shoes will be difficult to fill, the huge spaces he leaves behind more difficult still. His legacy? A set of visitor targets to drive his successor to a delirium of anxious frustration. Nick will never be described as a new Medici, but he might be remembered as a new Disney.

All of which is perhaps a little harsh. Ultimately, if museum directors are judged (and invariably they are, for better or worse) on how they transform and expand their museums, then Serota must be viewed as one of the greats. Tate today means something very different from Tate 30 years ago. In a rapidly changing world which, for now at least, loves to celebrate the new, it's likely that had Serota not dragged Tate into the shiny, brash world of contemporary art, the institution and its historic Millbank home might have gently faded from public consciousness, and with it too the perception that our greatest museums deserve more public support, not less. Just look at the Wallace Collection for a contrast.

That said, it's possible to admire Serota for this achievement, and at the same time think that he stretched the elastic too far - that Tate Britain and it's historic collections have been too eclipsed by the brightness of Tate Modern, indeed almost to a scandalous degree. But perhaps the pendulum will soon swing back, and the bedrock of Tate's collections can be 'rediscovered' by a new generation of directors and curators. Ok, that might be an optimistic view - but here's hoping.

Incidentally, I don't much like the sound of being Stephen Bayley's mistress:

Indeed, in nearly 30 years at Tate, he [Serota] has grown a pleasant Millbank backwater gallery with a nice collection of English art admixed with a polite smattering of international modernismo, the sort of place you would take your mistress on a wet afternoon in Pimlico after a kebab and before some hanky-panky, into a roaring, multi-site, premium-branded visitor experience.

Update - here's Waldemar on the awkwardness of Tate Modern's hang, one of the legacies of Serota's approach to museum management:

One of the most noticeable features of the new £260m Tate Modern is the instinctive trust placed by the building and its hang in what we might call the “deconstructivist” approach to art. It’s the approach where you lay down the pieces and the visitor is tasked with the effort of putting them together.

The building encourages this approach by consisting so prominently of foyers and staircases — a giant 3D board game across which the public can merrily scamper in a building-wide game of snakes and ladders. The hang encourages it by saying nothing specific about anything. Split into thematic groupings of exemplary vagueness — Artist and Society; Materials and Objects; In the Studio; Media Networks — the Tate’s collection of modern art has dispensed with isms and national schools, with intentional contexts and the aims of the artist, with notions of quality and a meaningful chronology, and replaced them all with a game of cultural snap that involves noticing how one thing looks next to another.

The artworks themselves are remarkably consistent in adopting the same approach. Whether it be Marina Abramovic’s laying out of “72 objects of pain or pleasure” on a trestle table or Rebecca Horn exhibiting the props she used in her 1970s performances or Meschac Gaba displaying scores of pretend exhibits for his “Museum of Contemporary African Art”, what all this art has in common is long-windedness. These are narratives without conclusions: beginnings without ends. Given the task of making sense of them, the viewer is forced to join up dots that have no connection.

The Tate calls this “interaction”. What it really is is “distraction” — keeping visitors busy by giving them claw cranes to play with. It’s a process so hit and miss that the misses are no longer relevant. If you never encapsulate, you can never be wrong.

Update II - here's an episode of BBC Radio 4's 'The Reunion', about the building and opening of Tate Modern. Serota is joined by others involved at the time. 

Update III - a reader writes:

Serota saw the future and grabbed it for The Tate. That's worth a lot.  The next Tate director must have a plan for the Milbank galleries. 

In most enterprises one tries to launch the new product, The Tate Modern in Serota’s case,  while updating the old product with its narrow focus on which the reputation was built.  Otherwise you have M&S where I still buy my socks but little else except in their mini groceries.

The quality at the Tate Britain is quite high and the restaurant often more full than the permanent collection galleries.   Its location however is less than convenient with few other attractions nearby while the Tate Modern thrives in the midst of a newly fashionable Southwark which it helped to revive jammed with trendy restaurants and near The Globe.   The area’s Dickensian smoke scarred buildings having given way to vast new if undistinguished apartment blocks and offices and people like going there.  The art is an attraction with contemporary works drawing large crowds of visitors who want to see the art and visit the area.

So Serota did well latching on to the emerging trend and putting the Tate brand on a sweet new contemporary art center that wins in the public taste test.  And he got the project funded with the help of some City folk, and then building on its strength added an exciting new wing.  These are major accomplishment worthy of praise and a handsome bonus.   Yes, more might be done with old product but that is difficult to design and even more difficult to fund the type of needed renovation and reworking of the building.  The V&A has done that splendidly but with a better location and a broad product range.   The National Gallery by contrast to Tate Britain has an iconic location on its side and benefits from a well developed online presence, a more extensive range, and a series of major international exhibitions.

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