If you thought Nick Serota had left Tate months ago, he has now and Maria Balshaw takes over tomorrow. It’s a huge legacy, including a very large debt she will have to fill at a time when, unlike when Serota took over, subsidy is shrinking, and the estate she becomes chatelaine of is several times the modest mansion that Alan Bowness handed over in 1988.
At that transition Tate could relax knowing that 80% of its income would be met by the government. Now it’s more like 30%, but with that shrinkage has come a burgeoning earned income, about £14m 29 years ago, nearer £86m now. With all the love going Manchester’s way just now, I wonder if Balshaw will feel a pang of doubt tomorrow as she climbs the spiral staircase to her Millbank office and the challenge.
Serota’s final gift was the Switch House, now the Blavatnik Building that a sponsor paid an alleged £50m to have renamed, but it cost £260m and a year after it opened it isn’t paid for yet. And the lifts still don’t work properly.
But that, you might think, is petty compared with what he has achieved for us. He had the vision to accept the idea of an undistinguished industrial wreck of a building on a deserted stretch of the Thames south bank – against a lot of counter counselling, including my own - becoming Britain’s first national museum of contemporary art. He had the faith to know that while Tate had almost no contemporary collections to speak of, and no longer a purchase grant to buy anything at a time when the market had already caught on, he would be able to create one. And he had the charm to get hundreds of millions of mostly American dollars to pay for it all, with no small help from the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. He revived the Turner Prize and while its purse has been dwarfed by other arts awards its reputation means it's still the blue riband of contemporary culture.
Not a few artists and critics have held against him his espousal of the YBAs and of conceptual art, but he didn’t make those phenomena, he allowed them to be known about widely which has been, after all, his job. Tate Liverpool was already open when he joined from the Whitechapel three decades ago, but he opened Tate St Ives, now re-furbished, and while Tate was struggling to bring in two million when he arrived he has more the trebled the footfall. And the collection has almost half as many works again as it had in 1988.
He has always had a good working relationship with the Arts Council and between them they managed to ameliorate the worst effects of Jeremy Hunt’s cuts of 2011; as its new chair he will preside over ACE’s tricky grant allocations later this month.
But if he leaves a debt for Maria Balshaw to deal with, the debt we owe him bears no comparison. As the citation said when he was given the Critics’ Circle’s centenary award in 2013, he “helped millions to realise they could love contemporary art when they hadn’t even known they could like it”.