Tischgespräche
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Interview with Lars Nittve,
director of the Tate Modern in London - the first European modern art museum since the opening of the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1977.

Gazette: Tate Modern has met with an enormous success, drawing far more visitors in the first ten months after its opening than you ever expected. What is the secret of this success? What is so attractive about Tate Modern?
Lars Nittve: I don't think we have a full answer, so there has to be a certain amount of speculation. We have had 4,6 million now in ten months and we had expected around 2,5 for the full first year. So it is a huge difference. I think that in Britain there has been a buildup in the interest in visual art in general and in modern and contemporary art in particular during the last ten to fifteen years. It has gained more and more presence in the cultural life of the city. As an outsider I always felt that visual art was on the lowest rung of the ladder in the hierarchy of the various forms of culture in Britain, where literature, theatre, music were considered as much more important and were given much more coverage. Also there were many more well-known names and international figures in those fields, while it is quite clear that none of the major movements in 20th century art have come out of Britain, no surrealism, no cubism, no futurism.
But there has been a shift. It is not a coincidence that we happen now and not 30 years ago. We are a sign of this shift but we also confirm it and we celebrate a change in the British culture.I dont think we could anticipate how embraced we would be. That not only accounts for the British public which is a bit over half of the audience. We also have a good bit of the audience from abroad. Internationally, too, the opening of the gallery had a much larger impact than we could ever anticipate. It has been quite extraordinary. It has to do with London to a certain extent, with the fact that London is generally seen as very vibrant right now. It is not only about visual art, even though this is a strong field now. But you can equally look at fashion, design. Things visual have become extremely important in London, which attracts people to come here and we are the pinnacle right now of this visual culture.
Then, if we look at the people that have been coming here, it turns out that we have a large number of visitors who have never been to art museums before. We have broken into new audiences. This is for several reasons: partly because we are accessible free of charge, then there is the fact that we are in an old industrial building instead of an elegant glass house or an oldfashioned type of temple-like building, this also makes us more accessible.It is less dramatic for someone who is not used to going to cultural institutions to come into Tate Modern, a building that has been an old workplace.
We have also had a very conscious program to lower the thresholds for people, never to compromise in terms of the quality of the art, but never to have anything that creates thresholds, including the style of the staff working in the house, how they dress, how they behave. And we do know that we have many returnees, more than we have ever had in the old Tate.

The environment is more open, people are obviously more ready to expose themselves to this art, but does this also signify a genuine interest in and appreciation of contemporary art?
I think the only thing you can really measure is the time people spend in the gallery and how much time they spend in other parts of the building. It turns out that they spend much more time at least looking at works of art than we anticipated that they would do. That is some sign of appreciation or at least of interest. Of course, contemporary art is never only about pleasure, it can be about discomfort, about being irritated and having your worldview disturbed by something. But obviously, the interest is kept up. One thing is quite remarkable: There are works of art that we have had in the old Tate before and that were experienced as being very challenging to people, where we had complaints of people saying how can you show this, or my child could this, or this is pornographic - all the outrage over modern art that you can experience. But we are having much less of this here in Tate Modern. So this is an environment where people take down their guard a bit and are more open to the experience than they were in the old building.

How would you respond to critics who say, it is all a lifestyle thing: People go for a walk, they go ice-skating, they come here, stroll through the galleries, have an espresso in the coffeeshop and go. It has nothing to do with an appreciation of art. How would you see that?
This links to a bigger issue. Museums of modern art have been one of the winners in general in the last 30 years in terms of attracting the public. More and more people go to art museums, more and more people go to see especially contemporary art than ever before. One can of course ask oneself why is this. Is it a life-style thing and a part almost of the entertainment industry? That is one theory. The alternative theory is that in a world where more and more of our expereinces are mediated via images, computers, television, films, newspapers, we have less and less one-to-one real-life-experiences and the rest of the world becomes more and more info-tainment, maybe there is a drive for an experience that counters this. When you are in one of these gallereis and stand in front of a Matisse or a Rothko, you know you can only have this experience here, it is you and the art work, and it is real and it is now. It maybe that people are also looking for this kind of experience as a counterbalance to what the rest of the world is like.
And in all fairness, I think it is a little bit of both. We do know that people like to eat in museums, they like to shop in museum shops. But of course, I hope that at the core is this counterbalance issue, a longing for a unique intense experience that you can only have here and now.

The director of Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota has been quoted as saying that the majority of British people still hope that one day art will come back to its senses. On the occasion of the opening of Tate Modern, a number of media have referred back to the following statement once made by one of the tabloids: "For more a than a thousand years, art signified the progress of civilization. Today, we have dirty bedsheets as works of art and regressing into barbarianism." Are the British really less open to modern art than other countries?
Honestly, I do think it is not that different from other places. The fact is that we do have this large audience and also a much wider social spread among the people , it is no just the highly educated upper middle class. It is to a certain extent a new audience. I am not British, I have been her for two, three years. I had always heard the British dont like visual art, but I must say I don't see any difference between the climate in Denmark or Sweden I think it is the same balance between suspicion and embrace as there is anywhere else. I think it is a little bit of a British myth. But certainly, if you look back historically, visual art was of course lower down on the ladder. And not only visual arts, but also when you look at the way people furnished their houses, aesthetics were not a driver. But that has changed radically in British society.

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