by Meghna MehtaApr 07, 2020
London was a very different place in May 2000. Sure, Tony Blair was in power and ‘Cool Britannia’ was a thing, but the city itself was pretty much as it had been in the 1970s. Its international appeal rested on crumbling heritage and countercultural kudos. Seediness was a major selling point and, even in the era of the ‘Spice Girls’, it didn’t feel as if much was about to change.
Other global cities turned to flashy institutional architecture to burnish cultural credentials, whether IM. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. London produced nothing remotely comparable. A 1990s extension to the National Gallery by American postmodernists Venturi Scott Brown was intelligent but undersized. The British Library followed in 1997 but, with a design dating back to the 1970s, met with little excitement, even if its virtues are now recognised. The opening of Tate Modern changed all that, handing London a cultural status – and touristic allure – to match those of New York and Paris.
The original Tate Gallery had been founded in 1897 to champion British art. A belated embrace of international works and an underpowered acquisition budget left it with a mediocre collection of modern art. Stranded in a lifeless residential district, it hosted endless exhibitions on Turner, the pre-Raphaelites and middle-ranking British painters of the post-war years. After his appointment in 1988, Tate’s new director Nicholas Serota strove to overcome these challenges, building visitor numbers and cultivating artists, particularly those engaged in ‘serious’ (and rarely British) arenas such as minimalism and neo-expressionism.
Serota had help in raising the profile of contemporary art. The emergence of the Young British Artists – Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood et al. – finally gave Britain an artistic movement with sex appeal at home and abroad, while the Thatcher years started London’s commercial art scene on the path to predominance. Tate had already established modest outposts in Liverpool and St Ives with some success, but had long-standing aspirations to separate its modern and British collections. The establishment of a National Lottery in 1993 to realise millennium projects, combined with Serota’s unprecedented skill at tapping elites old and new for cash, finally made “Tate Modern” a viable prospect.
The following year, a location was selected: Bankside Power Station, designed by architect Giles Gilbert Scott. Despite its central position across the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral, this massive brick structure – conceived in the 1940s, completed in 1962, then abandoned within two decades – barely impinged on public consciousness. It festered gently amid a messy patchwork of railway viaducts, bomb damage and abandoned warehouses, yet was conveniently adjacent to the rather grubby ribbon of cultural institutions built on the South Bank in the 1950s and 60s. With a handy subway line also under construction, the area was ripe for cultural regeneration.
New museums are often marriages of convenience: architects use cultural commissions as opportunities for self-expression; clients are eager for iconic architecture. The needs of the institution, and of the objects on display, can end up as secondary considerations. At Tate Modern, thanks to a highly structured design process, the art came first. The choice of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron as architects was a canny one. They were little known outside Switzerland but had a strong record of collaborating with artists, and their scheme – when compared to rival plans from David Chipperfield, Tadao Ando and Renzo Piano – was far from eye-catching.
They proposed no major interventions in the façade, choosing instead “to accept the physical power of Bankside’s massive mountain-like brick building”, as they put it. A ‘light box’ ran the length of the roof, housing offices and restaurants. Galleries, shops, an auditorium and other facilities were neatly slotted into the pre-existing boiler house beneath. The central space, the 150-metre-long turbine hall, was emptied and excavated, bringing its floor level down to that of the oil storage tanks below, but its integrity, and industrial grit, were preserved – Herzog & de Meuron was the only practice to retain it as a unified whole.
The result was an exhilarating and hugely popular public space that, unlike most international equivalents, was also free to access. Sloping gently downwards at its entrance, the turbine hall acted as a covered street that extended from its concrete floor, through austere new landscaping outside (birches were pretty much all that could survive the industrial soil), right out to the river, previously hidden behind walls. And it also proved itself as a generative display space. Major figures such as Anish Kapoor, Doris Salcedo, Bruce Nauman and Ai Weiwei created site-specific installations that were significant events in their own right. In 2003, Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, with its huge glowing sun under a mirrored ceiling, generated an unprecedented artistic happening, with bewitched crowds bathing in its hazy mists.
The opening of Tate Modern on May 11, 2000 was an extraordinary boost for the South Bank. Previously, committed cultural pilgrims almost revelled in its unpleasantness, which gave proof of their devotion to the arts. Now it became a genuinely popular destination. Tate had been preceded by a surprisingly successful replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, opened in 1997, and two other millennium projects – the new London Eye wheel, and a sleek if rather wobbly pedestrian bridge across to the City of London – but in truth, the new museum almost single-handedly reshaped London.
There were criticisms. Tate’s galleries, developed after consultation with approved artists, were long, uniform boxes with untreated oak floors. To some they suited the serious business of looking at art; to others they were dour, neglecting broad views over London and playing second fiddle to the turbine hall. A thematic hang needled many critics, while concealing the patchiness of the collection. The circulation was problematic – a single, spindly escalator led up from the turbine hall, skipping the floor on which most visitors, defying expectations, entered the building. Some found the pervasive branding heavy-handed.
But none of that really mattered. Tate Modern drew two million visitors in the first three months, and over five million in the course of the year, three times more than anticipated. The success led to expansion, first into the attractively dingy concrete of the former oil tanks, and then in 2016 into a brick-clad ziggurat designed by Herzog & de Meuron directly above them. These developments catered to the unexpected volume of visitors, but also to changes in art creation, display and collection – in particular the growth of performance and installation art. The circulation is, again, questionable, and there are fewer new galleries than expected – educational spaces are prioritised, along with commercial needs – but, again, the overall reception has been positive.
For some – and not just ageing aesthetes – Tate Modern’s success has its bitter side. As intended, the surrounding area has been gentrified, with penthouse apartments and chain restaurants in abundance. Plans for Tate’s extension were hastened when the threat from these developments became clear; its futuristic glass cladding was even swapped for brick as the commercial frenzy made the latter the more radical choice. The new project cost nearly twice as much as the original, yet almost all was raised privately; it was promptly renamed the Blavatnik Building after the main donor. Despite Serota’s unwavering support for the concept of the free, state-funded gallery, his extraordinary achievements have introduced new norms in the financing and running of public museums – for better or worse, a fusty social elite has been ousted for a thrusting financial one. The democratisation of art has also been accompanied by a wider corporatisation and privatisation of culture, undermining London’s countercultural ethos.
Tate Modern has no admissions fee and public funding is declining. The blockbuster exhibition has changed from novelty to eternal state, driven by financial necessities, curatorial practices and visitor expectations. To its great credit, the gallery hosted a series of acclaimed shows last year highlighting overlooked female modernists – Anni Albers, Dorothea Tanning and Natalia Gonchorova – yet it was the palatable Pierre Bonnard who drew most visitors, and money. This year, the repeat button was hit for the first time, with a second appearance for the bankable Andy Warhol, now cut short by coronavirus.
In a world of reduced tourism and increased social distancing, last year’s record 6.1 million visitors may be a thing of the past. Certainly, most people believe that trimmed programming is likely in future. Perhaps the shift to education was prescient; perhaps shifts online – forging relationships with audiences who may never visit the building (or buy a coffee) – may be required. But, in all likelihood, the world’s most successful art gallery will need to find a whole new approach to the business of being a museum, in order to retain that title.
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