One of the journalists present asked him if any of the entries on show was actually any good, if they weren't all a con trick on the public.
Serota stiffened and answered slowly and deliberately that he and his questioner approached this from such different standpoints that he found it impossible to have a dialogue with him. I found that a little disappointing. Much of the bafflement of onlookers over the increasingly polarised debate on contemporary art is caused by the unwillingness of both sides - but overwhelmingly that of the advocate of avant-garde, conceptualist and installation art - to explain the intricate worth of such works.
And it is important at this time to understand something of the artistic preferences, taste and passions of Nicholas Serota. Any time now the director of the Tate will announce the location of the new museum of modern art (Moma), Britain's first national museum dedicated to 20th-century art. Moma may still be sited next to the Hayward Gallery and National Theatre on London's South Bank, but Serota's preferred location is an existing building, the Bankside power station across the river from St Paul's Cathedral.
The plan is to leave the British collection at the Tate at Millbank and house international 20th-century art at the new site, the contents drawn from the Tate's collection. In other words, the Tate's collection will be split. Providing his contract is renewed next year, Moma, like the Tate in London, like the Tate in Liverpool, like the Tate in St Ives, like the running of the Turner Prize, will answer ultimately to 47-year-old Nicholas Serota.
Location aside, one of the more vexed questions for a museum of 20th-century international art is how you define the word international. Serota agrees the definition is flexible. 'We will start with the basis of the Tate's existing collection, which is largely European and American. But I think ideas about what constitutes international art are changing, and we're less constrained by the constrictions of the cold war period. We will look further east and further south. We will look at Asia and Africa.'
Listening to Serota talk it is hard not to see him, as he describes himself, as a man with catholic tastes and an open mind. So I put it to him that there was a sizeable constituency in the art world who felt he gave representational art a low priority - the late Peter Fuller, founder of the journal Modern Painters, labelled him the head of 'the academy of the avant-garde', and Giles Auty, in The Spectator, claimed that 'prevailing fashion, often of the most ephemeral kind, is effectively enshrined by events such as the Turner Prize and rewarded so blatantly by policy on acquisitions.'
Serota sighs. It may be a practised sigh or it may be genuine and spontaneous. Either way it seems this is a battle he does not particularly enjoy. 'My interests are a lot broader than some people would imagine. We've just bought a painting by Leonard McComb and we bought an early Maggi Hambling. I don't think either of those are artists my critics think I would admire. They assume I would only bring in certain forms of minimal and conceptual art. The major acquisitions here in terms of money have been Freud and Guston, both figurative.'
As he will soon be running both the Tate and the modern art museum, it is important again to understand his passions. Name names, please, Mr Serota.
'I am passionate about Beuys, Guston, Beckmann, Mondrian. I used to name Brancusi's Maistra as my favourite work in the gallery. These people touch me. It's not for aesthetic reasons at all. At the end of the day the art that moves me is art that has strong emotions - whether those are expressed in relatively simple forms like Mondrian's or Brancusi's, or in passionate works like Beckmann's. For me they are two sides of the same coin. The debate I used to have with Peter (Fuller) is that he wanted to suppress one side in order to promote the other. I want to promote both sides. Why can't you listen to both Wagner and Bach?' Perhaps because he realises he has been, uncharacteristically, just a little too passionate, Serota adopts his self-mocking half-smile, adding sotto voce, 'though I think I prefer Wagner'.
I asked him to take one controversial work and describe why he thought so highly of it: Joseph Beuys's sculpture The End of the Twentieth Century - basalt blocks with a cone-shaped piece cut from each block and the whole lined with felt and clay - which some critics have called overrated and overpriced (it was bought for pounds 694,000).
He starts slowly, almost hesitantly, sounding like a lecturer giving notes to a student who can't keep up: 'I think, for me, at least, Beuys was a very important artist in Germany in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. He is part of that continuation of the German romantic and spiritual in art from the 19th century, in that he managed to express his own concern about the destruction of the environment and the enduring elements of the natural world. Installed in the gallery, its form is very powerful. In Liverpool all kinds of people were moved when they saw it.'
He warms to his theme: 'Perhaps people come into the gallery with ideas of what art should be and can be. They think it should be a representation of the human form, or primarily concerned with that, which for many artists hasn't been the case for 50 years. Also people assume that there needs to be a very evident craft skill in operation. So when they come in and look at a rice field, some people can't see it at all. But others find it uplifting.'
And what does he think of Vong Phaophanit's neon-lit rice, the work which was shortlisted for the Turner prize, and which he is now endeavouring to buy for the Tate? 'I think it's rather beautiful.'
So I return to my basic question. Why has he, and the other arbiters of taste, been unable to convince his detractors of the worth of such art? 'Some of these difficulties are ones which are particular to Britain,' he says. 'Anything to do with sex creates real problems in this country that even in Germany they can't begin to understand.'
Come, come. Since when has the debate been about sex? It's surely a clash of styles, a clash of philosophies, championing a certain artistic tradition at the expense of others.
'It's difficult to make wild generalisations. But it's quite interesting that both sides present the other as being somewhat narrow-minded. I suspect I'm much more broad-minded and catholic in my interests than some people would think. One of the difficulties for the Tate is that, like any establishment, you can always be criticised by people who have in the main a single-interest point of view.
'In a sense I'm doing my job well if I'm criticised. Actually there's also a perceptible criticism from the young avant-garde that we don't buy things quickly enough. There's criticism from another flank that we shouldn't buy any contemporary art, but use all our money for acknowledged masterpieces. There are even people in this museum who don't think we should be buying contemporary art at all.'
At the Tate, Serota's crowning achievement has been the annual re-hang. By stripping the central galleries of false ceilings and screen walls and each year putting the spotlight on certain artists, showing them in the context of others working at the time, hanging fewer pictures, but more imaginatively, he has cunningly given regular visitors the impression that they were entering a new art gallery each year.
And yet. While the re-hangs are inspired, they make no concession to the casual visitor, who in a rare visit to the Tate might want to see the Gallery's most notable works. By all means have an art-historical dialogue with the cognoscenti, but isn't there room, too, for the old favourites? Pop art has barely figured in recent years, much to Peter Blake's chagrin. Rodin's The Kiss has not always been present. The Tate's reputedly most visited picture, Hockney's Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, is in storage. Bringing so many paintings out of storage in annual rotation is a blessing, but why not have the highlights permanently on view?
Serota says it is a physical impossibility, as the 'highlights' constitute about 800 works. This is a blatant evasion of the argument. The Tate knows what its top 10 or 20 most visited works are. They could be permanently on display. The conflict between a determination to lead thinking about contemporary art and accommodating the popular demand is not perhaps one that the Tate's director wishes to compromise on.
But his uncompromising attitude has its admirers, not least at the New York Museum of Modern Art. They are rumoured, along with the Boston museum of fine arts, to have approached Serota, a rumour he does not deny. However, it is clear that he wants to serve another term at the Tate and open Moma in the year 2000. 'Yes,' he says, 'I'd like to be here to see it all come to fruition.' This time he allows himself a full smile, 'Or see it all fall to pieces'.
An extended version of this interview will appear in 'Modern Painters' magazine, published next week
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