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.

(continued from page 1)

After the opening of Tate Modern there has been a heated debate about the arrangement of the art works according to themes rather than chronology. Are you still convinced that this was a good decision and if so, why?
Yes, I am convinced for a couple reasons. We have some visitor research that indicates what people think about it. A bit over two thirds of the visitors say they find the thematic way of arranging works helps them to understand better why artists are doing what they are doing and why their works look they way they do. There is a little less than a third of our audience that are quite irritated by this arragangement. Indications are that the irritated group are those people who know more about art. It seems that if you know your 20th century art, you don't like the history you have in your head disrupted, while if you are more of a newcomer to art, it seems to be quite helpful. This is encouraging, because one of the reasons we wanted to this was that we were quite confident that there is not one true story of modern art. There are multiple stories and the same art work can participate in many different stories and we wanted to open up the history of modern art.
One of the key things that are quite important to the gallery is that we want to come back to a balance between the early modernist period and the contemporary and show how many links there are between now and then and what the differences are. But the story has grown very long. When the chronology of the -isms was first presented, the story to be told was between 30 and 50 years long. The story we are telling now is 70 years longer, the collections are bigger and the distance between the beginning and the end of the story - if it even was a single story - has grown so long that it is very hard to make that link. You have to have a lot of stamina to actually make it from beginning to end in one go. So we wanted to break that up and bring artists from the beginning and the end of the story closer together.
One thing that struck me when we thinking about this was that the chronological ways of showing a collection is not ahistorical, but here is less of a history in it. When the stories grow long, it means that every single room often contains works made by only one artist or by several at about the same time. This means it is like a time capsule.
When you instal a gallery, basically what you do, is to choose which works to show together. What steers these choices is what you think would help the public to come to grips with these works of art and to understand why an artist did something the way he did it. In a chronological arrangement you are basically saying the artist did it because all his mates were doing it at the time. What we wanted to do, is to get closer to what goes on in the brain of the artist, where of course they think what their mates are doing, but they also think of what artists were doing 50 or 70 years ago.
One thing we got completey wrong, though, was the conception of space. We were thinking of five or six people in a room standing around and looking at the art works in this room. In fact, we have a hundred people walking along the walls which means that you get congestion and you cannot make the links in the way we anticipated. So we had to rethink several rooms and to hang the rooms in a completely different way.

So Tate Modern it still is a work in progress?
It definitely is. What we have decided is to keep this framework of themes for five years or so. But in real life we'll do it this way as long as we think it is productive. We already have changed some 15 to 20 rooms, but within the existing framework.

The first major exhibition at Tate Modern, "Century City", has met with rather negative critical response from the media. Was this justified, did it surprise you?
We were all mentally prepared for this. After having had this huge success, this was the next moment where there was a chance to bring us down a bit from our elevated position, this is not only British, but certainly also a British habit to this. What surprised me was the level of aggression in some of the negative reviews. But there was some criticism that is fair.
I think the exhibition is remarkable. But it is also clear that some parts are stronger than others. The balance between the different cities could have been better.We did choose to work with outside curators in most cases, which I think is right. So you have Nigerian curators for the Lagos section and Japanese for the Tokyo section. What is difficult when you work like this - which is important so you don't appear to be patronizing -, is that you give up a certain element of control over the character of the project. We did want the exhibition to be about difference, not similarity, but there clearly is an imbalance. Also it is a little bit unclear whther it is an exhibition about art and culture produced in a city at a certain point in time or whether it is about art and culture which is about the city. It has been read in slightly different ways by different curators. So some sections are more about urbanism while others are about art and culture in general from a particualr place at a particular time.
But having said that I am still very proud of the exhibition.

But is not one problem also that the title "Century City" raised certain expectations. Some people expected to understand better what it is about a city that gives rise to a particular art. Whereas when you come here, you find the art, but the question is where is the city environment in which this was created. You see the art, but you don't learn about the atmosphere in which this art was created, you do not get a feeling for the cultural or intellectual vibrancy that led to this kind of art.
Of course, you cannot reconstruct a city in an exhibition. But my impression is that the exhibits convey a certain sense of urgency and vibrancy. And the catalogue adds to the understanding. But you can only do it to a point, clearly. It is difficult. But I think the most successful cities in the exhibition give people a great experience.

What are your expectations and plans for Tate Modern?
Basically we want to create a gallery that on the one side fulfills the expectations of a classic major museum of modern art where you are able to see the best possible exhibitions of modern classics with the best possible loans from all over the world. We want to be that, as solid as a rock. At the same time we want to challenge the expectations of such a gallery and actually rethink what such a museum should be. One of the key things for us is to achieve more of a balance between the historical and the contemporary and to bring back that link. Also, we want to move beyond painting, sculpture, works on and look into other techniques, films, video, documentray material and also start to integrate design, dance, music, performance, and so forth. Not starting to collect it, but not to have artificial borders between the designer who is preoccupied with certain issues and an artist who is preoccupied with similar issues.And then we want to expand the geographical reach outside the traditional Western centres. Acknowledge that some of the most interesting art is currently made ouside the old centres. The short-term way is to do this in exhibitions, the much longer process is to build up a collection. But is is definitely our intention to do this.

Die Fragen stellte Brigitte Voykowitsch.

24. März 2001

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