Does Britain Need a New Tate Modern?

Tate Modern building project   View of Construction Site  Photo: Tate Photography

Tate Modern building project. View of construction site. (Photo: Tate Photography.)

Frequent visitors to Tate Modern are already used to the noise of the building site outside. The museum’s £215m extension is due for completion in 2016, but construction is well underway, and a pyramid is rising from the ground to the sound of cranes and pneumatic drills. Even at this early stage, the structure is impressive, announcing Tate Modern’s firm intention to remain the global reference when it comes to modern and contemporary art galleries. The most visited museum in the world in its category, it became the fourth most popular museum worldwide almost immediately after its inauguration in 2000, and is the UK’s second tourist attraction. Audience-wise, Paris’ Centre Pompidou and New York’s MoMA don’t even come close. “When Tate Modern opened we expected two million visitors,” director Chris Dercon told artnet News via email. “In the first year we had five million visitors. Tate Modern is growing to meet that demand.” It seems logical enough, yet as museums mushroom and funds dry up, one has to ask: is growth the only way forward? What is the potential impact locally, nationally, and on the museum itself?

Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, the brains behind the initial transformation of Bankside’s old power station, have been called in again to design the new building. It will sit atop the former station’s oil tanks, which will be dedicated to installations, performance and time-based media and act as the foundations for a network of exhibition spaces of various sizes. “In terms of topography, it’s almost like a little city,” explains Jacques Herzog in a video published on the Tate website. Connected to the original building, the new structure will add 5,600 square meters of exhibition space and allow for the display of 60 percent more artworks from the collection. Also planned are education facilities, offices, catering and retail spaces, a public terrace and a new Members Room—bringing the total added floor space to just under 21,000 square meters.

Herzog describes Tate’s pyramid as “something between a really rational form and a really irrational form.” Like at the Louvre, the choice of this particular shape—imbued with notions of power and permanence—is highly symbolic. Initially the idea was to have a stack of glass boxes. But the plan was abandoned, perhaps judged too banal, or too at odds with the original structure. “All building schemes go through phases of refinement,” Dercon told artnet News, although he wouldn’t elaborate further (Herzog & de Meuron’s partner in charge of the project, Ascan Mergenthaler, declined to comment on the change).

While the final design will radically transform Tate Modern’s silhouette, it is much more sympathetic to its surroundings. The bare concrete skeleton now soaring next to the old power station will be clad in a brick lattice redolent of London’s Victorian vernacular architecture, and the building’s height will echo the museum’s famous chimney. Yet not everyone is thrilled. Although sympathetic to the museum’s motives, James Hatts, the editor of the local community website London SE1, told artnet News he was “sad to lose the shape and outline of the old Bankside Power Station building.”

Tate Modern’s new spaces will reflect and accommodate changes in art practice as well as accommodating more visitors. The boom in installation and performance art of the last decade has had an impact on the museum’s collection, which now features more than 300 large-scale installations, compared to just 86 in 2000, when Tate Modern first opened. These need appropriate galleries in which to be shown. Yet what is at stake with this extension is more than just the addition of space or exhibition possibilities. “The Tate aspiration,” says Mergenthaler, “is to rethink the Tate, and reach out with a new model for museums of modern and contemporary art.” But this quest for a new model here means following the museum-as-architectural-landmark trend that has become ubiquitous in the wake of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Marketing material describes Tate Modern extension as “the capital’s first great public building of the 21st century,” an “iconic world-class addition to the London skyline.” And it is very much inscribed in the rapid regeneration of the Bermondsey area, epitomized by the inauguration of the Qatar National Bank-funded Shard building in 2012.

Tate Modern itself has been a key player in this local transformation. Since its opening, the number of residents in the immediate neighborhood has doubled from 3,000 to 6,000, and the number of people working locally has jumped from 6,000 to 60,000. In his contribution to the 2011 Culture and Urban Transformation international seminar at SESC Belenzinho in São Paulo, Tate’s director of Regeneration & Community Donald Hyslop estimates that the economic impact Tate has generated is “worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the economy of London.” The museum has also been proactive in forging links with its environment via several initiatives, including the Tate Community Garden and the Community Film Club. London SE1’s editor Hatts describes the museum as a “good neighbor,” but he worries that, with the new extension, “‘normal people will be priced out—including artists and creatives.” In Bermondsey, as anywhere else, gentrification comes at a price. According to, the median property selling price in the borough of Southwark increased 163 percent between 2000 and 2013—against 94 percent for London as a whole. The future might well confirm Hatts’s fears as the arrival of the new building—combined with the capital’s current real estate frenzy—is unlikely to reverse the trend.

With growth comes ever-increasing funding needs. So far, Tate has been successful in attracting major gifts. Last July the organization announced it had secured £10m for the Tate Modern project from the Eyal Ofer Family Foundation, set up by an Israeli real estate and shipping magnate who is worth an estimated $6 billion. The donation has brought the total of funding raised for the extension to 85 percent of the total £215m. This is no small feat. In the UK the culture of philanthropy is modest in comparison to that of the US—and the country is yet to have a tax regime to fully encourage it (despite politicians’ fantasies that private wealth will come to the rescue of dwindling public funds). But finding money has always been the forte of Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, who pioneered the fundraising auction model in London as early as 1987, while director of the Whitechapel Gallery.

Today only 40 percent of Tate’s total income (£157.8m in 2012–13) comes via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Grant in Aid. The remaining 60 percent is self-generated and includes admissions, Tate Enterprises revenue, sponsorship, and donations (the exact proportions for the last two are not publically released); and these figures encompass Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives since, when contacted by artnet News, the organization refused to disclose the breakdown of income and expenditure per gallery. The museum also turned down an inquiry about the projected operational budget of the new building, as well as about the number of employees who will staff the new building. The Environmental Statement: Non Technical Summary—part of the planning application submitted in January 2009—estimates the total net employment for the development as 306.

The secrecy shrouding all things new Tate makes guessing even a ballpark operational budget virtually impossible, but it is likely to be significant— and Tate has no doubt prepared for it. The question is how? “It’s pretty unlikely that Tate has gone into this with some sort of big gap in their budget,” says Museums Association director Mark Taylor. Yet, as he points out, fundraising can’t be the only solution. “I suspect they are going to have problems raising significant funds for keeping it open,” he adds. “People don’t want to give you money to pay for the lights, the drains, and the toilets. They want shiny new buildings.”

Could the extension mean more reliance on corporate sponsorship – including Tate’s highly controversial partnership with oil giant BP? More retail units embedded within the fabric of the museum? More blockbuster shows to attract paying crowds? In short, is there a risk that financial pressures will have too great an impact upon Tate’s artistic and strategic decisions in the future?

These questions are worth bearing in mind, as some of our best museums seem to get caught in the capitalist grow-or-die model. Bigger museums attract more visitors, lured by their collections, their programs, and their newfound must-see status on the tourist’s checklist.

In the likely scenario that the Tate extension ends up welcoming more punters than it was built for, should a third building rise up beside the pyramid? One can only be thrilled by the popularity contemporary art has come to enjoy in the last decade, yet this seemingly insatiable appetite could be used to foster diversity rather that boost the profile of behemoth institutions that increasingly function like global brands. “Diversification and specialization in the presentation of kinds of contemporary work is also pertinent to galleries and museums,” says Alessandro Vincentelli, a curator at BALTIC, which is one of the many smaller British institutions that have shined in recent years.

There are more than 240 museums in London alone, and upwards of 2,400 throughout the UK. Although Tate has championed art in the regions, with two branches outside the capital and a touring program of Artist Room exhibitions, it remains “a long established reality that the distribution of culture [in the UK] is London-centric,” says Ben Borthwick, former CEO of the Cardiff-based Artes Mundi Prize. A London icon in the making, Tate’s pyramid might place extra emphasis on the capital, and could risk becoming a monument to the London v. Rest of the Country divide. One cannot doubt the future of Tate is bright, nor that a warm reception will greet the new landmark—and rightly so. Let’s just hope it will not completely overshadow the many other initiatives the country has to offer, in London and beyond.

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