Journey to the Centre of the Tate

Posted on 9 avril 2005 par

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Four museums, 68,000 works, 7.4 million visitors, 19 million web users in 2010-2011, Tate is one of the most visited cultural organisations in the world. As a machine, it runs very well. A guided visit. An article by Géraldine Vessière published in Trends Tendances. 16 Feb 2012

Haus der Kunst, 02.03.2009Portrait Chris DerconFoto: Marion Vogel“We are pleased to announce a new international programme: BMW Tate Live: Performance Room. Spread over four years it will offer artists a space for exclusively virtual expression”, enthuses, in his typical fashion, the new director of Tate Modern, Belgian Chris Dercon. “20,000 visitors come to our site every day. It seemed logical to us to develop a programme that was specifically aimed at them”. In mid-October, Tate announced BMW Tate Live. Aweek earlier, it presented the Tanks, a future extension of the museum. At the end of July, they launched two new partnerships, one with Vodafone for Tate Debates, the other with Guaranty Trust Bank, a Nigerian bank, to promote African art.

Cultural programmes, expansion projects, acquisitions of works of art, temporary exhibitions, iPhone apps, new partnerships, Tate doesn’t stop. The press releases, projects, and ambitious exhibitions keep coming, and regular shows such as the Turner Prize and the Unilever Series continue. The latter is a programme which, each year for the last twelve years, asks an artist to come up with an original creation for the former turbine hall. In 2010, Ai Wei Wei covered the floor with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds and in 2004 Olafur Eliasson brought in the sun for The Weather Project. And these are just a few examples.

“The museum is a space in flux. It is constantly changing. People come to us with new demands and new expectations. We have to try and meet them, Chris Dercon confides. Visitors don’t want a museum as it would have been thirty years ago. They want to take part. We have to adapt to this evolution by creating something unique. Tate is a museum on the move, a museum in progress.”

A sprawling institution

Created to house Sir Henry Tate’s painting and sculpture collection, The National Gallery of British Art, future Tate, came into existence in 1897 in the former prison Millbank, which is now Tate Britain. At the time, the collection only numbered 245 works. It was officially renamed Tate Gallery in 1932. Tate Liverpool was opened in 1988, and Tate St Ives in Cornwall in 1993, which contributed to the local economy. According to Tate’s 2010-2011 annual report, the visitors to Tate Liverpool will have spent some 5 million euros in the town.

The youngest Tate was born in 2000. Tate Modern is by the Thames, transformed from a former power station by architects Herzog & de Meuron. Today, Tate’s mission is to expand knowledge, understanding and discovery of modern and contemporary British art. Since 1917 it also looks after the national collection of twentieth century art.

Commercial power

Tate ModernTate is also a huge financial machine. In 2010-2011, it recorded 119.3 million pounds in outgoings – 70% operational costs and 30% investments – and a gross income of 122.6 million pounds. 56% of their gross income was self-generated compared with 44% coming from public subsidies. In the last five years, the first has risen by 15% whereas the second have only grown by 5%. The rising trend for public authorities to stop investing in the cultural sector is forcing museums to develop their own resources. As part of their austerity programme, the British government announced last year a 15% reduction in aid to museums over four years.

In this way, Tate’s first source of private revenue comes from Tate Enterprises. Seven permanent shops, several temporary boutiques linked to current exhibitions, eight cafes or restaurants, numerous publications, such as exhibition catalogues, and derived products – including honey from the hives on the roofs of Tate Modern and Tate Britain, together brought in 27 million pounds, or 22% of their total gross income. On the sponsorship side, fundraising revenue rose to 20,050 pounds and works of art donated amounted to 4.3 million pounds.

Force of attraction

Does the importance of self-generated income influence artistic choices? “Personally I have always been used to working in this way,” replies Chris Dercon. “When I was in charge of PS1 in the US, all our income was self-generated. Haus der Kunst is the only place I worked that was 100% funded by the public. This just pushed me to want to go further, to do more. We need private investors. Art has always developed thanks to sponsors. However, Tate is so hugely successful that we have to put on temporary exhibitions or events that have a certain impact. We’re a mass media. We have to, as a company has to, present flagship products to attract as many people as possible while also being capable to touch a small number with a specific subject. Without a Gerhard Richter exhibition, we wouldn’t have been able to speak about Germany from the 1970s to 1990s. Both are as important.”

In this spirit, there have been Tate exhibitions on Eadweard Muybridge, Francis Alijs, Miró, Picasso and Gauguin. The show on Gauguin the myth-maker made the top three in terms of Tate visitor numbers. Banking on the extra crowds that the Olympic games will bring, Tate has also programmed a series of events for summer 2012 which will, without fail, pull a large audience. One of these will be a Damien Hirst retrospective, the controversial but popular artist.

Chris Dercon goes on: “running a museum is not very different from running a company. We have a marketing department, customer services, we have to create an environment suitable for work. At the same time, we work with people who have to make subjective decisions. Why choose to present such or such an artist? Why give this structure or this guiding line to an exhibition? These are questions that lead to considered responses made by people who know their field, but which remain subjective. It is therefore important to be surrounded by colleagues who you can trust.

Tate Modern, a catalyst?

Gauguin Maker of myth. Tate Modern 2011Tate Modern is the museum that attracts the most visitors out of the four. Five million per year, compared to 1.6 million for Tate Britain, 606,000 for Tate Liverpool and 199,000 for Tate St. Ives. Established more than ten years ago in a former power station, it rapidly became a victim of its own success. From the first years onwards, it received four million visitors instead of the anticipated two million, many more than the space could absorb. Result: the redevelopment of the former oil vat, the Tanks, and the construction of an extension designed by the architects Herzog & de Meuron are currently on-going. They should increase the museum’s exhibition, performance and educational programme space by 70%. The first phase of the works, the Tanks, should be finished just in time for the Olympics. The second phase won’t be completed before 2016.

For the new director of Tate Modern, the challenges go far beyond the bricks and cement. “Tate Modern has entered its third phase. The first, which stretched from 2000 to 2005, was devoted to creating the brand and affirming its existence. The second saw the positioning of the brand, in other terms the development of its credibility, and its elevation to the highest rank, on par with MoMA or the Guggenheim. Today, it’s about adapting the brand to the changes of the art world and to the public’s new demands. In parallel, we are confronted with the west’s opening up to contemporary art from other regions, notably from China, Turkey or the Middle East, and more generally, to the question of what art is today, art after Duchamp. It’s become a more and more permeable discipline which integrates others such as video or performance. The greatest challenge is to accept these changes which are at work in our society and to give them a form of expression, to create a platform which takes them into account.

Géraldine Vessière

Translation Tom Smith

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