Director of London's Tate Gallery Stirs Up the Venerable Collection


YOU could call Nicholas Serota a "post-Modernist" museum director. After initial hesitation he voices semi-approval of such a label.

"I suppose I am post-Modernist in the sense that I am prepared to see virtue in things that my predecessors found difficult."

Four years ago, Mr. Serota became director of the Tate Gallery - one of the world's major collections of modern art, and also the premier historical collection of British art. He has been stirring up the place ever since.

One of the marks of his Tate is that the art displayed on its walls is no longer predictable, either in its choice or placing. "I think it's ... important to constantly challenge our preconceptions about who is major and who minor," he says. In this he is "post-Modernist," refusing to accept established hierarchies of artists, not necessarily following the dictates of fashion.

He also refuses to accept any longer the Museum of Modern Art in New York as the model for all 20th-century public collections, though in this he is simply in tune with the times: "Most museums of modern art throughout the world took their cue from MOMA," he says, "but over the last 10 or 12 years that has no longer been the case."

New York and American art "no longer have quite that sense of buzz they had 15 or 20 years ago." He also points to significant change in attitudes toward European artists. "American museums, for the first time in 30 or 40 years, are making retrospective or thematic exhibitions of the work of European artists." British art, too, has been gaining far more appreciation in the United States - and also, incidentally, in Paris.

Serota says museums are realizing they belong to the countries they exist in, not to some kind of universal internationalism. They are also recognizing they "cannot be encyclopedic and must ... focus their collections in certain areas." His cry is always "build on your strengths" (Surrealist painting is one of the Tate's) in exhibiting, collecting, and even long-term borrowing from other institutions at home and, he hopes, from abroad.

If museums continue to foster their national differences, Serota feels, then people will increasingly know when they are in London, Paris, or New York when they visit.

Since his arrival the Tate has not only changed, but gone on changing year by year, in quite unprecedented ways.

This is partly because, as he puts it, "all of us are much more open to readings of different periods in the history of art which perhaps would not have been accepted 15 or 20 years ago" - again a rather post-Modernist approach.

It used to be possible to tour the collection, situated by the Thames, with your eyes shut. It was divided peculiarly into two distinct parts, and the gallery layout acknowledged the double thrust of the collection: British art on one side, "modern foreign art" on the other. In 1987 a wing was added for Turner, arguably Britain's greatest painter, whose bequest to the nation was, until then, scattered through three museums.

Occasionally works were moved around within their designated areas, one or two galleries renovated or rehung, but mostly the place had become static.

The collections reached the point of gigantism, with far more of them in storage than have ever been exhibited.

It's true that just before Serota took over, an outpost of the Tate in Liverpool had opened, and this has been a successful means of taking Tate Gallery holdings to the provinces as well as bringing some of them out of storage for periods. Other regional branches are underway or rumored.

But Serota, who comes from an 11-year stint as renovatory director of London's Whitechapel Art Gallery, at last acknowledged, with his display tactics, that the good old Tate was not so much a gallery standing above ground, as a vast submerged iceberg with only its tip on show.

He instituted what is known as the Annual Rehang. This meant major rehanging of most galleries per annum. Works that few people knew were part of the Tate's collection have surfaced. Artists previously unappreciated have come into full view.

Serota recalls with delight two ladies at the first rehanging, who looked at works by Lucien Freud and exclaimed, "At last the Stanley Spencers!" Spencer, he says, had been just considered "an English eccentric" while Serota asserts that, if the Tate had done its job properly, Spencer should have achieved a pan-European reputation.

For example, Spen-cer should have been seen as comparable with the German realists of the 1920s and '30s. But the Tate, apparently ashamed of this British sport, had hung a couple of his works on the backstairs leading down to the restaurant.

As for Freud - well, this British realist artist, too, had been one of those working away through the decades when international abstraction had been largely in the ascendancy. Along with others like Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, Freud was not then shown in "official exhibitions." These artists "were not being promoted by the British Council as the British artists an international audience should be looking at," Serota says.

Those enthusiastic women visiting the Tate were understandably unfamiliar with both Spencer and Freud.

The gallery is currently undergoing its fourth rehanging since Serota's arrival, to be completed in February.

The Tate, which will be a century old in 1997, has taken on an extraordinary new lease of life. But Serota knows he hasn't actually solved the Tate's space problems. People still come some distance hoping to see particular works, only to find they aren't on display.

As the century ends, it's the need for more space that is the chief preoccupation of the director, the board of trustees, and an increasingly voluble and provocative band of critics.

Some cry for a separation of the two sides of the collection - the British collection staying in the 19th-century building, and a new home found or built for the Moderns. Serota himself is naturally concerned not to lose, in such a development, the fruitful interplay of British art with 20th-century art from the rest of the world, which his hanging policies have inventively exploited.

His aim is still "what would be seen as a museum of 20th-century art with a strong British component."

Serota is at heart a mixer, not a separator.

But as a pragmatist, he expresses little doubt that the trustees are bound to come up with some building or moving plan to divide the Tate. He pinpoints "late Autumn" as the time for an announcement. Some available land next door will surely be part of the proposal. But it seems unlikely to be enough to answer the Tate's ever-expanding needs. What no one disputes is that this great collection isn't half visible enough.

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