Culture House Daily

The problems at Tate Britain go beyond the director

3 May 2014

Last week, Tate Britain was one of six museums across the UK to be nominated for the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year award, an annual prize in which the winner receives the not inconsiderable sum of £100,000. A couple of weeks earlier, Waldemar Januszczak, the Sunday Times’s ‘cor blimey’ art critic (don’t get me wrong, he has a winning shoot-from-the-hip style) was calling for the head of Penelope Curtis, Tate Britain’s director since 2010.

Despite approving of the chronological rehang of the permanent collection which she oversaw last year – in fact, he proclaimed it a ‘miracle’ – Januszczak still insisted Curtis must go. He gave his reasons: she puts on rubbish shows and under her leadership visitor numbers dropped significantly (by 10 per cent last year). However, he didn’t mention that most of Tate Britain’s galleries had been shut for major rebuilding and refurbishment (which is where the splendid rehang came in and the later unveiling of Tate Britain’s showpiece spiral stairwell). Despite all this, he nonetheless made some valid points.

Now, I’m not calling for Curtis’s head, but there is no doubt there are problems at Tate Britain. And this includes misconceived curatorial thinking. Sadly, Curtis appears fixated by intellectually incoherent, ‘trans-historical’ surveys, the worst of which had to be last year’s Art under Attack, in which the curators got very confused between literal destruction – the Reformation; individuals taking an axe to a work in a gallery – and the metaphorical language of ‘destruction’ used by artists to create art in the latter half of the 20th century.

Forgive my recourse to Godwin’s law, but this really is like trying to compare James Joyce’s ‘destruction’ of form with fascist book-burning. One is clearly an intellectual and artistic endeavour, while the other a suppression of intellectual and artistic endeavour. The distinction became somewhat blurred in the exhibition.

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What’s more, the curators appeared to approve of the destruction – that is, the literal destruction – of some art for causes which met with their approval. So it appeared to be OK for Mary Richardson to have slashed Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus because she was a suffragette, but it would definitely not have been OK for her to do so in her incarnation as a fascist Black Shirt just a few years later.

I’m not saying Tate Britain doesn’t showcase well-deserved contemporary British art – it does – but in some deeply rooted, subconscious sense it appears to have lost faith in British art. And this expresses itself in regular vanity projects for curators in which they shoehorn artists into shows with half-arsed agendas. The current Ruin Lust is another example. I know it’s terribly fashionable for curators to use the exhibition space as a playground for ideas, but I do wish they would ensure their ideas made connections that were illuminating rather than baffling.

Perhaps the deeper problem with Tate Britain is a structural one, and goes back to the creation of the two London Tate galleries with the arrival of Tate Modern. This two-museum model has inevitably created a two-tier system – a first and a second division of British artist – in which British artists are packaged as either ‘British-British’ (provincial British?) or ‘international-British’.

The two-tier system was kicked off in the Olympic year when Damien Hirst was given a Tate Modern retrospective. His natural home should of course have been Tate Britain but as a high-grossing artist whose celebrity dazzles beyond the art world he was honoured at the venue that has greater footfall and a sexier image (and don’t forget, this is the artist who more or less bought his way into the Wallace Collection with some of the most amateurish paintings you’ll ever see).

Previously, there had been no question of other high-profile artists such as Francis Bacon or Howard Hodgkin or Bridget Riley receiving a Tate Modern survey. They were all shown at Tate Britain, just like the international sculptor Richard Deacon is with his current survey.

Tate has created a rod for its own back. At some point the two-tier model will prove untenable. In which venue should we expect to find a future survey of Sarah Lucas, who will represent Britain at the Venice Biennale next year? Or the sculptor Barbara Hepworth? Is Lucas less international-British than Hirst, and hence less important? Was Richard Hamilton – who you can still catch at Tate Modern – more international-British than Hepworth, or Bacon?

Meanwhile, non-British artists can win the Turner Prize for British art (this year it was won by French artist Laure Prouvost and in the past it’s been won by two Germans). I think this is fine, but I also believe there’s an inherent irony here.

Whether they get their hands on that £100,000 or not, Tate Britain could do with a serious rethink.

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Show comments
  • edithgrove

    Tate Britain has never looked better, Penelope Curtis should get a prize. Finally a beautiful place to look seriously at art, there are few such places in Europe or America. Of course it won’t have the foot traffic of Tate Modern, it has no view of St Paul’s and no Matisse cut-outs, and British art is always going to be an acquired taste. Also anyone who has read Waldemar J. for any extended period knows he is … challenged.

  • Paul Dove

    Waldemar Januszczak actually spent most of the article slagging off the new Phyllida Barlow installation – which most critics think is a spectacular triumph – before he launched into a bullying ad hominem on Penelope Curtis. Both attacks were boorish and unwarranted. There is a problem with the two-tier Tate Modern /Tate Britain exhibition policy but that’s hardly Curtis’ fault and Januszczak’s singling her out was really distasteful.

    Oh, and I really like Tate Britain’s provocative transhistorical shows which you spend so much time criticising precisely because they’re thought-provoking and ask difficult perhaps unanswerable questions. Art under Attack was bound to make uncomfortable viewing because it raised taboo questions regarding the vandalism of art and the extent to which we still regard artworks to be sacred or invested with some sort of pseudo-religious power. The Chapmans’ defacement of art isn’t merely metaphorical.

    In recent years Tate B has raised the bar for intelligent exhibition making. Even once rather anodyne institutions like the NG and BM are beginning to put on more challenging shows in their wake (eg Strange Beauty/Germany Divided).

  • anncalba

    How very London and metrocentric. Showed some pictures by Bacon to my (non London) grand daughter a few weeks ago. She was horrified at their extreme ugliness. Out of the mouths of babes….

  • mitate

    to save all the confusion and debate over bacon, hodgkin or riley versus hirst, tate modern should begin where tate britain ends…chronologically.
    when should that date be? well, you mentioned one of our greatest artists in barbara hepworth, so why not when she died: 1975.
    her death (arguably) marked the end of truly great modern art in this country, and i’m sure the bright young things of the art world would agree that anything pre-1975 just isn’t recent enough, anyway.

  • MirandaDSchuler

    Previously, there had been no question of other high-profile artists such as Francis Bacon or Howard Hodgkin or Bridget Riley receiving a Tate Modern survey. They were all shown at Tate Britain, just like the international sculptor Richard Deacon is with his current survey.

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