My question was chosen for publication in today’s Observer, in response to their invitation to readers to send questions to Nick Serota, in relation to Tate Modern’s 10th birthday. I had been Education Officer at Tate in the 90s and helped ‘make’ Tate Modern, planning its education and visitor facilities. Then, as I had a new baby I wasn’t full time but I did work part-time there until 2002. My inside perspective has broadened as I’ve become much more conscious of Tate playing its part in the wider cultural offer. I think it plays a really strong role and know that everyone there works incredibly hard. However, I do have some concerns about the expense of the new extension, not just the £215 million but the associated expense in staff focus and the need to sustain an expanded building over time. I’m aware that the ‘sell’ of the extension is not just about showing different types of work but is strongly about learning and audience engagement. My question is below, followed by Serota’s response, and then some explanation of my remaining concerns.
Q: What are the main justifications you use when fundraising for the new Tate Modern extension? How do you feel an extension in London will deliver £215m worth of cultural learning compared to the potential value of spending that money on, for example, supporting museums at risk of closure, filling rural gaps or increasing digital access to culture?
A: There is a place for a large flagship organisation of the kind Tate Modern represents that is able to bring together the best art, large audiences, a strong learning programme and show things can be done in new ways. Spreading money thinly across the country would not have the same impact. I believe money should be spent in the regions, but a lot of the money collected for Tate Modern comes from places and individuals who want to see a great organisation in the centre of London. If it were all public money, it might be different. We have five million visitors a year. We will have more. Anyone who visits at weekends knows how overcrowded the gallery is. Anyone who tries to subscribe to our learning programmes knows they are wildly oversubscribed. So we have to grow. Every museum of modern art has grown in the last 20 or 30 years. The Museum of Modern Art in New York almost doubled its size five years ago, the Pompidou Centre increased by one third, eight or nine years ago. We have an expanding collection and need to have space to show that collection. If we don’t grow, people will stop giving us things – they will think they are simply going into the basement.
I think his response is good, a defence that is to be expected given the challenge faced to raise so much money so soon. But, it’s in that challenge that the rub lies. And it rubs in other places too:
1) Serota’s 1st point is about Tate Modern as a flagship organisation with strong learning programmes. However, Tate Modern is not so much a distinct organisation as part of a strong brand with 5 dimensions (4 galleries across the UK), plus regional partnerships. The learning programme has recently been pulled under central direction. The scale of this project will surely draw away resources from the other dimensions and locations. When we were planning Tate Modern, it added a great deal to our workload and slowed us down.
2) His second point is about spreading resources thinly. I wasn’t necessarily advocating spreading them that thinly. £215 million is a substantial amount of money, approaching the £300 million of Renaissance in the Regions spread over 8 years. This spend was too hastily planned and so there was far too much duplication. Distribution can work, if it is spent on well-planned projects driven by real need. We could learn from Renaissance and do better. A consortium of museums and galleries, with ACE and MLA, could start by building a major project from the plans of the Cultural Learning Alliance and the need to develop a much more co-ordinated national digital cultural offer.
3) The third point about individual donors wanting to see a great venue in London was challenged by a twitter comment from Vicky Barlow who said that we instead need to educate donors that they can be rewarded by supporting culture outside London too.
4) The fourth point that if this was public money it would be different is very questionable. Some of the money will be from DCMS. Also, I don’t believe that private money gives licence to build or develop anything that is desired, especially when the scale and expense reach a certain watershed. Most private wealth has been gained by exploitation of labour and natural resources, which may be relatively benign, but still requiring the donors to be very caring and careful in taking responsibility for their spending.
5) The 5th point that Tate Modern will have more than 5 million visitors a year may be true, for a while. However, as the environmental crisis deepens, leading to significant economic problems, cultural tourism will surely decline. It may also be true that the learning programmes are wildly oversubscribed, but an alternative response might be to work in partnership with the many cultural & heritage organisations across the South East who have an extraordinary offer that is being missed by educational audiences. For example, Tate works could be shown in venues across London, with creative educators and artists to develop activities. Tate Modern has brought great cultural capital to South London but there have been costs too: Southwark Council justified their closure of the Livesey Museum for Children because they said more schools could now go to Tate Modern.
6) The final point, that the Tate has to expand because others are too, and because its collection is expanding, seems pragmatic. It has its own logic. But expanding so expensively on this site is not the only logical alternative. In fact, given rising sea levels, and no serious plans to replace the Thames Barrier, it may not be a logical option at all. The problem of expansion is a self-fulfulling one: the need to compete with other bigger better museums, acquiring more art on a bigger scale, more artists making work on a bigger scale and so on. Similarly, retail has seen a trend towards the gargantuan, with shopping centres becoming gross and unusable. I’m sure the extension will be a fantastic place to visit and I have no doubt that the interpretation, learning and curation will be of the highest quality. I’m not suggesting it will be like a shopping centre, obviously. But, I think Tate needs to support a shift to a future in which cultural experiences and knowledge will need to be a great deal more embedded in our lives and communities, which for Tate should mean a greater emphasis on distribution, local partnerships and digital culture.
Museum-ID has just posted the results of its interview with Jeremy Hunt, Conservative shadow culture secretary.We were all invited to pose questions, and I put the digital one:
“Do you think there is a good business case for investing in making cultural collections and heritage knowledge more accessible by digital means? What opportunities in digital culture would a Conservative government invest in?”
Jeremy Hunt’s reply was a little bit underwhelming to be honest. I hoped to hear some insight into new approaches to digital content but, well, at least the response was ‘yes’:
“Yes, absolutely, and it has the potential to open up collections held in one part of the country to people living anywhere else. I know the British Museum has done some groundbreaking work in terms of digitising their collection, making it available online, and making people aware of it in imaginative ways such as ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. I would like to encourage more of this.”