Tall and crisply clean, Nicholas Serota cut an incongruously well-ironed figure the first time he took me tramping through the grime of the disused former power station then known as Bankside, now called Tate Modern. Yet even in 1992, before anyone realised how the gallery on the south side of the Thames would change both London and the art world, Serota seemed to dominate: the Turbine Hall will be here; the exhibition galleries there. He still dominates at 70, curled up in a small office across the river and serving tea in white china cups.
We are talking about the new-look Tate Modern, which will be nearly two-thirds bigger when the Switch House, its ten-storey extension, opens on June 17th. “What London is getting is not an extended Tate Modern, but a new Tate Modern,” he begins. “Because the way the building relates to the city will change. The way people will now engage with it will change. And what they encounter will change.
“You will arrive suddenly into the heart of the Tate – because the distance between the new entrance and the Turbine Hall is exactly 25 yards.”
Precision is one of Serota’s most visible qualities. Vision too, though at first that was obvious only to a few. In 1988, when the trustees of the Tate were searching for a new director to succeed Sir Alan Bowness, the short-listed applicants (including two arguably better-known curators, Norman Rosenthal and Julian Spalding) were asked to submit a seven-year scheme for the galleries. On two sheets of A4 paper, under the title “Grasping the Nettle”, Serota set out his vision. Listing the areas that needed to be overhauled, he concluded that Tate was loved but not respected. He got the job and changed that.
Serota will be remembered for three things. The first is that he has moved contemporary art in Britain to centre-stage in a way that it never was before Tate Modern opened in 2000. The small contemporary offshoots in Dundee, Hastings, Margate and St Ives would not have happened if Tate Modern had not led the way. Secondly, he has helped move Tate (and other museums have followed) away from being temples to art and towards becoming instead forums of discussion, didacticism and debate, centres of engagement as strong as public libraries were in the 19th century.
Third, he has placed Tate Modern at the vanguard of a movement to promote private sponsorship of the arts in Britain: the government and local councils provided just £58m of the £260m cost of the new extension of Tate Modern; the remainder came from a wide circle of charitable foundations and private individuals. These include hedge-fund moguls such as Noam Gottesman and Emmanuel Roman, shipping mavens such as the Chandris family and bankers such as John Studzinski, who in the past 15 years has committed over $10m to Tate. More than just milking the rich, the shift has proved how well suited the public-private idea is to the modern age: in Germany, where culture is almost completely state-funded, museums feel under no pressure to broaden their appeal, so they don’t; in New York, where they are pretty much entirely privately financed, policy is dominated by wealthy trustees to the exclusion of almost everyone else.
But it is a fourth element which may make his influence most lasting. When Tate Modern opened, contemporary art was still overwhelmingly an American and north-west European affair – and mostly male and white. Few recognised that Modernism was in fact many modernisms, with artists in eastern Europe developing a vision of their own in the 1960s just as artists in Japan were doing the same; or that countries such as Benin or Sudan were producing world-class artists like Meschac Gaba and Ibrahim El-Salahi who hold their own against those from London or New York; or that there were women like Louise Bourgeois or Yayoi Kusama who created amazing work all their lives but became household names only when they were in their 70s. Most people become more narrow-minded as they grow older; Serota, who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the Camden Group of London artists and his Master’s thesis on J.M.W. Turner, is just the opposite. His ever-widening horizon will be his enduring legacy.
Not everybody is a fan. Some regard him as cold, calculating and too close to the art dealers whom Tate Modern has made rich. But his influence is undeniable, for his creation has become the benchmark for curators everywhere. In 2013, on my first visit to the newly opened Shanghai Museum of Art, Li Xu, the chief curator, gazed across the polished airport runway of a floor and said: “I wanted it to look like Tate Modern.” In late March, when Qatar Museums was choosing the architectural shortlist for its new Art Mill, the Gulf’s first major museum of contemporary art, the first thing a group of visiting foreign curators was told was: “It will be twice as big as Tate Modern.”