The Nick of time
The encomiums for Nick Serota have come thick and fast since it was announced that he was standing down after 28 years of running Tate, from the new culture secretary to the BBC’s Will Gompertz. Most notable, perhaps, is the word of the Arts Council’s CEO Darren Henley – “Nick is a visionary arts leader of immense national and international standing, whose cultural credentials are second to none” – whose boss Serota will become at the start of February.
But he has not been without his opponents. The late Brian Sewell, a paradigm of visual art critics for some, was contemptuous of what he called “The Serota Tendency” of devotion to contemporary movements in art, and refused to attend Tate press views. Serota revived the Turner Prize with the help of Channel 4 as the evocation of the cutting edge of contemporary art, which brought a sneer from the esteemed Royal Academician Michael Kenny who said that the thing about the cutting edge is that you can't see it and anything that claims to reveal it is bogus.
And there are still many who think a huge opportunity was missed by putting Tate Modern in the Bankside Power Station instead of commissioning a British architect, Chipperfield say, to create a purpose-built new gallery at Lambeth opposite the Millbank Tate for probably less than the cost of converting the old Gilbert Scott piece of industrial history, and that even the £260m second edition which opened in June doesn’t answer the requirement.
The critic Laura Gascoigne says that by splitting Tate Modern and Tate Britain Serota labelled British art as being “not as modern or sexy as art from abroad” which the Turner Prize has failed to correct so that minor foreign artists get the spectacular treatment at Bankside while the likes of Moore, Auerbach, Turner and Caro are ghettoised at the much less cossetted, or visited, Tate Britain. “Serota has been so concerned with global brand recognition that he has neglected the wider British art scene, especially in the field of painting in which we excel” she says, and her new novel coming out next year, The Horse’s Arse, is a satire on the art world. Serota, she says, has been a follower of trends, not a leader.
When in 2013 the Critics’ Circle gave one of its special centenary awards to Serota, Gascoigne was one of two members who resigned over the choice. The citation for that mentioned that in its first year, 2000, Tate Modern enticed 5m visitors: “By encouraging them into the gallery, Serota has helped millions to realise they could love contemporary art when they hadn’t even known they could like it”.
And for all his possible faults and despite his self-effacing and even shy nature, that’s what Serota has done: he has made contemporary art, British (Tate Britain, where his office remains, has been massively expanded too) and foreign, understandable and, to coin a favourite Arts Council word, accessible where once it was uncomprehended and even despised. And this is despite the fact that when he arrived the Tate’s holdings of contemporary and modern art were laughably inadequate. He has a keen sense of a national museum’s pastoral duty and made Tates Liverpool and St Ives, and a network of 20 or more visual arts organisations across the country, Plus Tate, that exchanges art, ideas, experience and advice. He persuaded Anthony D’Offay (and brokered the money) to sell to the nation at a bargain basement price his incomparable and vast collection of contemporary art to make a perpetual tour of the regions as Artists' Rooms.
And that sense of the arts as a self-help community is what he will bring to the Arts Council. Serota doesn’t have the political connections Peter Bazalgette has, the kind of connections that can bypass DCMS and go to straight to the Treasury. He has different areas of influence – for instance, no Briton stands higher in the esteem of the international art community, a quality whose potential value has perhaps been highlighted by Martin Roth’s sudden resignation from the V&A for fear of the consequences of Brexit.
The future of the arts in this country is going to be in making links, and that’s what Nick Serota does better than anyone.