Tate’s new power house

The Switch House, the extension to Tate Modern that opens on 17 June, responds magnificently to London’s appetite for international modern and contemporary art, writes Stephen Deuchar.

Before I came to the Art Fund in January 2010, I’d spent the previous 12 years at Tate, initially as director of the project to create a new gallery out of the old Tate Gallery at Millbank, and then, for the decade from 2000 onwards, as the director of Tate Britain itself.

It was an exhilarating role and a major privilege to lead the task of shaping a new gallery concept, assembling a new team and developing a new programme of exhibitions, displays and public services. Of course, it took some time for observers to accept that though the building was old, the concept was quite new – a fresh interpretation of Henry Tate’s vision of a gallery devoted solely to British art of all periods – and at first one was conscious of a certain amount of public mourning and nostalgia for the ‘old Tate’ where, since the 1920s, modern art from around the world had coexisted with British: this, after all, was where Hogarth and Picasso, Turner and Matisse, could be found happily and creatively cohabiting. Now, Picasso, Matisse and the rest of 20th- and 21st-century ‘international’ had been shipped down river to another, even newer kind of Tate – called Tate Modern – and not everyone was sure this was all going to end well…

“We can see in retrospect that something much more profound was going on: modern and contemporary art were moving centre-stage in British culture for more or less the first time. ”

  • Stephen Deuchar
  • on Tate Modern

Most of the worries were soon swept away. Tate Modern was an instant and substantial popular success. Visitor numbers were more than double the 2.5 million that had been projected for the opening year, and it was quickly apparent that these five-million-plus people hadn’t shown up just to ‘look at the building’ as early cynics were prone to suggest. In fact, we can see in retrospect that something much more profound was going on: modern and contemporary art were moving centre-stage in British culture for more or less the first time. National identity itself even seemed to shift a little, inexorably less exclusively tied up with heritage and tradition, progressively less hostile to change and challenge. Contemporary art, and the contemporary itself, somehow seemed more relevant, less frightening – even thrilling. There was no going back.

Of course, down at Tate Britain, where tradition and modernity were celebrated all at once (‘from the Tudors to the Turner Prize’, as we probably said at the time), there may have been some twinges of regret as we looked over to Bankside at this new, glamorous, attention-seeking and spectacularly successful younger sibling in the Tate family, hogging the limelight so relentlessly. But it was not (as I think I probably had to remind myself once or twice) a competition.

Tate Britain quickly found its feet – helped along by a successful programme of important and well-attended exhibitions through which a series of major British artists and movements were wholly reassessed, through new scholarship, for a 21st-century audience – and Tate Modern deepened its hold on the public imagination, becoming a must-see London tourist attraction and, indeed, one of Britain’s most famous cultural assets globally.

Both galleries challenged old ways of thinking about how collections should be presented and interpreted (their ‘thematic’ displays, these days uncontroversial, caused much harrumphing at the time) and, reinforced by a growing reputation for progressiveness, with a hint of judicious risk, the Tate brand as a whole began to acquire new levels of reach, clarity and impact. Tate’s corporate body encompassed all four galleries (including those in Liverpool and Tate St Ives), plus an expanding range of functions and services tied together by a strong image and ethos – at once fashionable and moral, popular and profound, entertaining and educative, innovative but deeply rooted.

Tate has led the way on so many museum fronts: artists are treated well and with respect; exhibitions, displays and expanding collections provide constant proof of the expertise and ambition of the curators; the quality and reach of Tate’s website (and thus access to its collections online) remains the envy of the sector; it has 2.62m followers on Twitter; its learning programmes are admired and inventive; and its relationships with museums and galleries across the UK – for example, through Plus Tate and Artist Rooms – are marked by their scale and generosity.

But while museums are understood these days to be much more than buildings that house collections, the quality of experience at Tate’s individual galleries has not, in truth, always been of the highest order. The wonderful makeover of Millbank by architects Caruso St John in 2013 put things right in style for Tate Britain, but the facilities and galleries of Tate Modern have been struggling to keep pace with demand more or less since the moment of their opening.

The challenge at Bankside has in essence been twofold: on the one hand, there has been an urgent need for better facilities for a high volume of visitors and for the staging of the multifaceted programmes they have arrived to consume; on the other, there’s been a yearning for bigger and better gallery spaces to make more of the international art collections whose breadth is now deeply impressive. No longer does ‘international modern’ mean essentially British, European and North American, as it most certainly used to. A collecting programme across Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East and beyond has brought a 50 per cent increase in new modern and contemporary acquisitions of all kinds since 2000 – from major new photographic holdings to large-scale sculpture and installation – and now Tate needs to find new spaces to display them well. In short, the case for the ‘new’ Tate Modern has been a strong one, and the £250m project which has answered it opens to the public on 17 June.

“Tate has a real commitment to putting the public interest first, and to nurturing the future audiences for art.”

  • Stephen Deuchar

Who will be the first visitors allowed in en masse to see the new galleries and displays? Not the hundreds of wealthy funders who have helped to make it all possible (they will no doubt get tours of ‘their’ individual spaces in advance), but scores of parties of schoolchildren from across the UK who have been given an exclusive day there to themselves before the public opening. That’s a good PR move, to be sure, but it also comes straight from the heart of Tate’s ethos: its real commitment to putting the public interest first, and to nurturing the future audiences for art.

What will visitors to the new Tate Modern find? At the heart of the development by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron is a new 10-storey building on the south side of the complex called the Switch House. Twisted as if by a force of energy, it is clad in a striking brickwork lattice, feeling both utterly of the moment and also profoundly connected to the old brick building by Giles Gilbert Scott, which it adjoins. For the visitor it provides three new floors worth of galleries, two floors for learning facilities, a new Members Room, several new areas of social space and, at level 10, a public viewing terrace.

Taken as a whole, the new complex will feel more coherent, the visitor experience revolving confidently around its four key components: the Boiler House, the Switch House, the Tanks and the Turbine Hall. Retaining in these titles the nomenclature from the Bankside power station that Tate Modern was built upon is not just a deferential nod to its architectural origins. It is a play, but a very serious one, on the notion that art itself is power and – for those who experience, enjoy and learn from it – an empowering force for good in the 21st century.

This article appears in Art Quarterly's summer 2016 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass.

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