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
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
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