Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS / EPA
Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith
Tate Modern at ten: in pictures
After receiving a royal seal of approval from the Queen, who officially opened the museum, Yoko Ono and Tony Blair rubbed shoulders with the pop singers Jarvis Cocker and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, who marvelled at the gallery, declaring it simply “amazing”.
Andrew Graham-Dixon, The Sunday Telegraph’s art critic, recalls the scene. “There was this incredible excitement, all the artists were there, everyone was there, and they just couldn’t believe what they saw when they walked inside.”
Tate Modern, together with the doomed Dome down the road, was to be London’s new millennium landmark - a remodelled power station on the south bank that would serve as the Britain’s new power house of modern and contemporary art.
Before it opened, London was the only major European city that did not have a world-class museum of modern art, perhaps because the British public was still unconvinced, uninterested and even suspicious of modern art. Experts lined up to predict that Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, could never justify Tate Modern’s £134-million price tag, among them Dr Patrick Greene, then head of the Museum’s Association. “There simply aren’t enough visitors to go round,” he said.
At the time, there was evidence to support such claims, including a survey which found that many young Britons, particularly teenagers, believed art was the preserve of the rich and old. But this week, as Tate Modern celebrates its tenth anniversary, all the evidence points towards it being one of the most important catalysts for the transformation of public attitudes to the visual arts in the UK, which has opened up modern art to a whole new swathe of the British public.
The museum has drawn in visitors in vast, unanticipated numbers, with more than 45 million people venturing through its entrance into the Turbine Hall. Attendance has doubled original expectations: the building was initially designed for 1.8 million visitors each year and it now gets close to five million, making it the most popular modern and contemporary art attraction in the world.
Last year, it attracted an average of more than 13,000 visitors a day, and 51 per cent of those visitors were under 35. So how on earth did Tate Modern become such an unexpected over-achiever?
Michael Craig Martin, the conceptual artist and former Tate trustee whose work is exhibited in the museum, believes that its physical openness has broken down many barriers. “It’s hard not to remember just how much suspicion and unease there was about contemporary art before, whereas now it’s everywhere - it has become a part of the cultural life of the country in a way that was unimaginable 20 years ago, and the Tate has played a very big part in that,” he says.
“I don’t think anybody imagined it would be as successful as it was. But from the minute the doors opened, people liked the place. It feels welcoming. That sense of it being free and unpretentious. It also took away a sense of distancing that a lot of people tend to feel about art. No one in the past had access to this kind of work. Modern and contemporary art was a much more closed, intimidating world, the sole domain of private galleries. What Tate Modern has done is to bring this world to a very large public.”
Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall entrance, which has played host to the annual Unilever series of installations including Anish Kapoor’s giant red-steel-and-PVC installation, Marsyas, in 2002, and Shibboleth, by Doris Salcedo, a crack in the hall’s concrete running the space’s entire length in 2007, has certainly grabbed the headlines.
But the most successful installations have been ones that not only worked within the space but actively encouraged audiences to engage with the works, such as Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in 2003 where visitors were invited to lie on the floor and watch themselves in the reflective ceiling above, Carsten Höller’s Test Site twisting slides in 2006, and most recently Miroslaw Balka’s Big Black Box, where visitors were invited to flail in total darkness inside Balka’s installation.
Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery and former director of programmes at Tate, was involved with the planning and launch of Tate Modern. “It was very clear in our minds that the facilities and the lay-out really did work to encourage lots of different kinds of groups to come, different combinations of families in the wider sense - like grandparents and grandchildren,” he says. “We decided there shouldn’t be any kind of shop or cafe in the turbine hall, to leave it as a really big space, so that people could do their own thing in it - picnic on the floor or engage with the art.
“We were also trying to show a range of different contemporary art, to show that it isn’t about one style, one movement or one direction. Ending anything reverential about modern art was crucial, so we famously put on an art course for taxi drivers. The message was really clear - this was a place open to anybody who wanted to come in the door. It wasn’t talking down to them. It was allowing them to be part of that discussion. It could cater for art experts and people who knew very little about art alike.”
Perhaps the boldest decision taken by those who launched Tate Modern was the radical and controversial departure from the traditional chronological hanging of museum artworks, which was dispensed with in favour of showcasing the permanent collection in four broad themes - Landscape, Still Life, The Nude and History.
The new method of displaying art works created groupings of both iconic and unfamiliar works, juxtaposing works and artists of different periods and allowing for multiple viewpoints in which famous works could be seen in different contexts. A rehang in 2006 has since re-arranged the collection, exploring how artists both respond to art in their own lifetime and the innovations of artists from earlier generations.
“We’ve tried to make exciting and thoughtful displays that can be read on many levels,” says Matthew Gale, head of displays at Tate Modern. “Showing very powerful masterpieces alongside more unusual and unexpected works brings out the possibilities of those pieces, which is both challenging and empowering for visitors, rather than saying:’this is chapter and verse about how you should look at a work.’”
The spectacular series of 52 exhibitions that the museum has presented in the last decade, showcasing works by 20th-century giants including Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo, have also pulled in visitors in their droves.
The most popular show, Matisse/Picasso that ran for three months in 2002, attracted more than 460,000 visitors. All of which means a roaring trade for Tate Modern shops, where more than £40 million has been spent on books and £35 million on gifts, prints and postcards since it opened.
The museum’s success and influence can also be measured by the fact that London is now widely perceived as the hub of the contemporary art world and Brits have become enthusiastic gallery goers. The artist Grayson Perry is another high-profile fan. “For me, Tate Modern started on a triumphant fanfare for high culture, because it arrived on time and on budget unlike that frisbee of glitzy populism of the Millenium Dome,” he says. “It is amazing that the Tate is only 10 years old, as to me it feels so established in our cultural landscape. It could be seen as the new cathedral of chattering class spirituality and the corporate headquarters of contemporary art PLC, but I love it for it is a huge and serious institution representing the community in which I operate.”
Whatever its appeal, the remodelled power station designed by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron has inspired a wave of gallery building across the country, regenerating sites such as Gateshead with the Baltic Centre and Salford with The Lowry gallery.
The curator Sir Norman Rosenthal, who staged the controversial Sensation exhibition of contemporary art at the Royal Academy in 1997, says that Tate Modern has revolutionised the public’s approach to art. “People often say that modern art is very elitist and difficult, and it can be, but at many levels, Tate Modern has made it easy. There is no reason why art should be the preserve of the upper-class intelligentsia.
“Tate Modern is not a frightening place and it doesn’t put people off. It’s a sexy, buzzing place that young and old people like to go to. It has changed the impact of art in London as the Pompidou did in Paris. Nick Serota has done his best to make it for all people and Britain is incomparably richer for it. It is a fabulous spectacle.”
But not everybody is convinced. Graham-Dixon feels the museum has contributed towards the “cheapening” of contemporary art in the past 10 years. “Much contemporary art has lost its seriousness and became rather trashy, witless and gimmicky,” he says.
“Yes, Tate Modern is a great day out but perhaps it’s too much of a great day out because it’s become a spectacular thing. By being this friendly people’s palace, it has slightly encouraged that aspect of art which can easily become a bit naff, banal and empty.”
Moreover, the art critic Brian Sewell accuses the museum of downright “indolence”. “Tate Modern has turned out to be an extraordinarily lazy institution,” he says. “If the middle-class British public knows anything about contemporary art, it is because of Charles Saatchi.
“If you look at Tate Modern’s exhibitions, they’ve all been art historical. They have told us nothing about what is going on in contemporary America, contemporary Germany, contemporary anywhere. That is one of the responsibilities of the museum and it simply hasn’t shouldered it.
“Instead, it has largely been an historical institution that has shown us the past, rummaging about in the 20th century. It hasn’t been modern at all.”
Sir Nicholas knows there will always be critics, but as he prepares to blow out the candles on his baby’s tenth birthday cake this week, he can celebrate his mantra that has opened up modern art to a new audience nationwide: “Artists oblige us to look again and to think again. Tate Modern gives us the opportunity to join them in that search.”