ARTS / The eye of the beholder: Nicholas Serota's directorship has brought the Tate Gallery more visitors, more visibility, and more vitriol. So who is he exactly, and just what does he stand for?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PLENTY of people say Nicholas Serota is a cold fish, but he smiles a lot. Though his lips are thin, it is not a thin smile; and although he is dry by nature, it is not a dry smile either. The best word for it is tentative, but that makes his smile quite unlike the rest of him. Serota is one of the least tentative people in this country.

As Director of the Tate Gallery, he is the grand impresario of the Turner Prize, awarded to Rachel Whiteread last Tuesday (indeed, he is the chairman and has the casting vote). Although the cacophony of praise, rage and malice in the art world is always at top volume during the week of the Prize, even Serota's supporters are detecting a feeling that the criticism is beginning to wound, and that, somehow, the Tate has gone off the boil. So, what is Nicholas Serota really like, and is he good at his job, or not?

The range of opinion about him is astonishing. The chairman of the Arts Council, Lord Palumbo, applauds his unflinching commitment to the shock of the new; but Catherine Lampert, director of the Whitechapel Gallery, one of the homes of the avant-garde, says there should be more figurative and landscape paintings on the Prize shortlist. This opinion is widely held and Serota ignores it: 'I don't think that people's sharply held views are something to be frightened of,' he says. Just as well.

Leslie Waddington, the doyen of London modern-art dealers, says: 'I think Nick is going to become a very great museum director.' The Tate's vast collection of British and modern international painting and sculpture (4,055 paintings, 1,050 sculptures) is now rehung regularly, and more of it has been seen by more visitors since Serota arrived than ever before. Moreover, the plan to build a new Museum of 20th-Century Art in London, perhaps at Bankside, is no longer a foolish fantasy: when Serota talks about it, you can imagine it happening.

The harshest charge against Serota is that, wittingly or not, he has done a favour to commercial galleries like Anthony d'Offay and the Lisson Gallery in London and the PACE Gallery in New York by providing a state-sponsored platform for the work of their fashionable and expensive young artists.

What we are seeing is another bitter skirmish in the battle between the modern and the familiar in art. It has been raging for over 50 years. The Tate has always been in the thick of it, and Serota is not a victim in this war. On the contrary, he is one of the generals, and it is important to understand what he stands for. What is required is a short history of the taste and times of Nicholas Serota.

FRANCES WOOD, now a senior curator at the British Library, used to go out with Nicholas Serota in the early Sixties when he was at Haberdashers' Aske's School in north London, where he was head boy and captain of games. 'He wasn't very ambitious. He didn't need to be. Things came to him,' she says. The only thing that worried Frances Wood was Nick's mother, who once gave him a medal for not tidying his room. It did not appear to be an affectionate gesture.

His mother was a Labour bigwig at the Greater London Council who became a life peer. Serota's father was a civil engineer, specialising in foundations. Both are still alive, and neither was a champagne socialist; white wine maybe, but not champagne. Serota recalls reproductions at home, 'some Degas, some Christopher Woods', but his parents were not art-collectors. Frances Wood, who went on to art school, says she doesn't believe he ever looked at a painting when he was a boy. His taste was for Chuck Berry; they would go to his concerts together. He went on to Christ's College, Cambridge, to read economics.

His conversion actually began at the Tate, when he was 18, in 1964. The painter Lawrence Gowing put together a random selection of recent painting and called the show 54-64. The Independent on Sunday's art critic, Tim Hilton, recalls that this was the Tate's first international contemporary-art show. Serota liked the colour and scale of the paintings, which included the first examples of Pop Art from America, and he still remembers its vitality: 'It was incredibly exciting.'

The timing was critical. The show opened near the end of 13 years of Conservative rule. Labour under Harold Wilson sounded radical and seemed realistic. 'Everyone was much more optimistic,' Serota says, 'and that created a climate in which the new was acceptable in a way that it wasn't previously and isn't now.'

At the end of his first year at Cambridge, when he realised that he would not be a great economist, Serota decided instead to study a subject he enjoyed. He had been spending time in the Fitzwilliam Museum, so he turned to art history, studying Renaissance art under the museum's director, Michael Jaffe. His taste at Cambridge was modern, but not predictably so. He borrowed drawings by the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska from Kettle's Yard, but the subject of his thesis was the Euston Road School, the most meticulously realistic group of modern British painters. Serota never learnt to paint himself.

Going to the Courtauld Institute as a post- graduate student, Serota decided to make his career in the arts, and expected to concentrate on 20th-century work. He studied J M W Turner and the romantic movement: 'I felt you couldn't understand the 20th century unless you knew something about the 19th.' He spent three months looking at Turner's sketchbooks in the British Museum. At the Courtauld he was taught by Michael Kitson and Anita Brookner, both strong personalities.

Serota insists that, even then, his taste in art was wider than the caricaturists will allow and than most people expect. But by the late 1960s he was already attracted by minimalist artists such as Richard Long, who arranges stones in circles and patterns on the gallery floor.

While John Elderfield, the other brilliant curator of his generation, went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1975 and eventually mounted the celebrated Matisse exhibition there in 1992, Serota chose to stay in Europe. He was a fan of Carl Andre's notorious bricks as early as 1974, and he also showed Howard Hodgkin when he was a neglected artist; but he stood out among his ambitious contemporaries by his ardour for German expressionists like Joseph Beuys and Georg Baselitz. (There is a strong flavour of Beuys in the new magazine tate, which features a grand piano stitched into a tight felt skin with a red cross on each side. This is a memorial to Thalidomide children: sound and possibility are trapped inside the skin; the red crosses are signs of emergency and compassion. If you weren't told, you'd never know.)

Beuys and Baselitz are acquired tastes. Having acquired them himself in the late 1970s when his taste 'opened up', Serota is still, 15 years later, one of a beleaguered minority. But a taste for minimalists and the German expressionists is what he is known for. 'One is a child of one's generation,' he says.

This particular child became an art technocrat, and moved fast. From the Courtauld he moved to the Arts Council, and then, aged 27, went to run his own gallery, the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, where he showed painters like Hodgkin and sculptors like Andre. In 1976, he moved to the Whitechapel, where he stayed for 12 years, opening the gallery to local painters and putting on shows that now sound like a roll-call of the fashionable: Ryman, Andre, Baselitz, Kiefer, Kounellis, Richter, Long, Schnabel, Clemente and Sean Scully, who was on this year's Turner shortlist.

History says Serota was acclaimed while at the Whitechapel. He says history is bunk. 'For most of the time, there was considerable hostility. Most of the reviews of the shows were not sympathetic, and I think the first time I was praised was the year before I left. I was never asked to advise the Arts Council; I was never invited to get involved with the Contemporary Arts Society. They were all closed doors.'

Serota has a reason for publicising this version of events: 'The story has grown up that I sailed through the Whitechapel to general acclamation; did the rehangs at Tate to general acclamation; and then fell on difficult times.' The times, he says, have never been easy.

THE DIRECTOR'S office at the Tate Gallery overlooks the Thames, and the taste it exhibits is discreet: brown bentwood tables, white walls, and a grey fitted carpet. On a sunny day the light forms moving abstract patterns on the walls. There are only two paintings, both by Patrick Caulfield ('an underrated painter'), done 30 years apart. Books are filed neatly and documents are in orderly piles.

Serota eschews the boss tactic of sitting with his back to the light. On the contrary, he suggests an atmosphere of trust by sitting with his back to the door. In the good light, narrow lines are visible on a taut, thin face (this man runs, and not for pleasure). His dress is severe - dark suits and white shirts. Leslie Waddington says he looks like a Jansenist dressed by Comme des Garcons. He sits with his shirtsleeves rolled up, and rests his chin in his fist.

Museums, he explains, 'like long-running productions in the theatre, can quite easily go to sleep'. When he arrived, the Tate had been asleep for some years under the directorship of Sir Alan Bowness. Good museums should combine the virtues of a theatre and a laboratory; but the Tate's atmosphere was much more white coats than greasepaint: curators had grown used to having their own way, and simply ignored painter-trustees like Patrick Heron who wanted more space between the pictures on the walls. Politicians came to believe that, because the Tate bought 'rubbish like the bricks', it was a waste of taxpayers' money. They cut the annual purchase grant by 11 per cent (from pounds 2,041,000 to pounds 1,815,000), and it has never risen since. Serota's appointment was well received at the time, but that had less to do with his taste than with the exit of the old regime.

Shortly after he arrived, he informed the curators they were wrong to think that the Tate's problems would be solved only when it had more space to show its collection: 'I told them that we would not get more space until we demonstrated that we could use what we have got more effectively.' By turning over the collection almost annually, 1,700 paintings and sculptures were shown in Serota's first three years, compared to 1,000 under the old system.

The reorganisation of the galleries had been dramatic. Patrick Heron especially admires the Duveen sculpture galleries, where the skylights have been opened up and the stonework stripped and cleaned. Five statues by Rodin stand in the first gallery; four monumental bronzes of the human back by Matisse are shown in the Rotunda, and beyond them are the ultra-moderns, including one of Donald Judd's neat (and expensive) boxes, plus Carl Andre's bricks (they still look daft). 'It's like the entrance to a very great gallery,' says Heron, who also approves of the 'spatial hanging' of the painting collection. (This means there is more space between the pictures.)

Critics such as Brian Sewell reproach Serota for removing from public view old favourites by Stubbs and Hockney. It is also true that while more paintings may have been on show over a number of years, fewer are to be seen at any one time. Serota is unapologetic about this: 'Some paintings have been overblown and need a rest.' Dennis Stevenson, chairman of the trustees of the Tate, acknowledges that Sewell would like to exterminate Serota: 'But Sewell never addresses the fact that 40 per cent more people come to the Tate than did five years ago.' (Quite so. I go to the Tate more often than before, knowing that I will see paintings that are new to me, or familiar paintings in new surroundings, and now enjoy the Tate more than I ever have.)

Stevenson, who became chairman of the trustees three weeks after Serota became director, makes a surprising observation. 'Nick Serota has actually spent his money filling gaps in our collections of rather traditional artists.' Although one purchase this year was a big Baselitz, weighing in at about dollars 800,000 (pounds 555,000), Serota has also brought out the cheque book for classic 18th-century paintings, two by Joseph Wright of Derby and a Gainsborough. Wright's Iron Forge (pictured here), at pounds 2.2m, is Serota's most expensive acquisition. Among the painters on whom he has spent more than pounds 100,000 are Lucian Freud, R B Kitaj, Patrick Heron, Howard Hodgkin, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Most are English and, with the exception of Baselitz, these works are not on the cutting edge of contemporary art.

The one acquisition that caused some trustees to raise their eyebrows was Joseph Beuys's sculpture entitled The End of the Twentieth Century, an assortment of substantial basalt blocks which cost about dollars 1m (pounds 694,000). It came from Anthony d'Offay. Our critic Tim Hilton says that Beuys is 'over-rated and over-priced'. Another view is that you can see better stones on Brighton beach. Serota insists that Beuys is one of the great figures of 20th-century art.

But these purchases appease neither friends nor enemies. Leslie Waddington thinks the Baselitz is too big and the Freud too ugly. The art critic of the Spectator, Giles Auty, thinks the wrong gaps are being filled: there is no Balthus in the collection, no Edward Hopper. Catherine Lampert, of the Whitechapel, believes Serota concentrates on buying a few major works at the expense of a broader selection from living British artists. A modernist collector like Alistair McAlpine says: 'The Tate's one responsibility is to do what it thinks best; instead, it does what it thinks safest.'

The precise nature of Serota's acquisitions policy gets lost in the annual furore over the Turner Prize, but he does not give a damn: 'The justification for the Prize is that the Tate is concerned with making judgements about the art of our own time, and it should not shirk these. By bringing contemporary art into this institution we give it a legitimacy it might not have if it sat on the margins. Of course, because you're legitimising before you can judge, that's dangerous. But I think if the National Theatre can put on plays by young writers, there's no reason why the Tate can't do the same for young artists.'

The danger he refers to is that the imprimatur of the Tate boosts an artist's price in a febrile market. Giles Auty speaks of the marketing expertise of international dealers like Anthony d'Offay or the Lisson Gallery: 'Lots of German and American towns have a Museum of Modern Art, and they will buy from dealers what's been on show at the Tate. Those collectors follow museum tastes like gulls after a fishing fleet.' Auty's charge is that Serota plus a few cronies in commercial galleries form an effective oligarchy of taste in art, and he catches a whiff of authoritarianism at the Tate: 'Nick would just like to live in a country like East Germany,' he says.

Serota's cool frays a bit at this charge. 'No doubt people see Anthony d'Offay showing Howard Hodgkin and see a conspiracy between us because the Tate shows Hodgkin too. I'm not sure what I can say, except that Anthony d'Offay wasn't showing Howard Hodgkin 20 years ago when I gave him a show at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. I showed Carl Andre in 1974 at Oxford long before he was shown by any London galleries, or, indeed, even the PACE Gallery in New York. Clearly, I have to be aware of the fact that if I decide to make a show of an artist at the Tate, this will influence the way people regard him or her. But it's only one of a series of relationships that decide whether or not an artist has value.'

Leslie Waddington says that it is the dealers like d'Offay and Nicholas Logsdail at the Lisson Gallery who have zeroed in on Serota's taste: 'He's not a whore.' Unlike others whom Waddington names. Serota says: 'I can only be true to myself.' Despite the accusations, there is no evidence at all that he is not.

EVERY TUESDAY at 8.30am Serota and Dennis Stevenson talk for an hour, and for six months half their time has been spent discussing plans for a Museum of 20th-Century Art in London. The idea is to celebrate the millennium with a new gallery specially built to house the collection of international modern art. British art would stay in the Tate. The space problem would be solved at a stroke.

Stevenson sounds utterly confident that the Tate will get the money. At the moment, the bigger question is the location. Sites already being studied include the South Bank by the Festival Hall and Sir Giles Scott's monumental, brick power station at Bankside, which would be linked to the north bank of the Thames by a pedestrian bridge. Serota expresses no preference. (However, when he says that a glamorous new bridge across the Thames would cost the same as a car park underneath Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank, you sense a sympathy for Bankside.)

Stevenson and Serota have a schedule: they propose to choose a site in the first part of 1994 and put their case to the Millennium Commission (charged with spending some of the money raised by the forthcoming national lottery) by the end of 1994. After two years of heavy fund-raising, they would start building in 1996 or 1997. 'For the opening, you're talking about the year 2000,' says Stevenson.

But Serota's seven-year term as Director of the Tate is up in 1995, and gossip already hints that he may take a top job in the United States. 'If he left, he'd get any job he liked,' says Waddington. These rumours may have something to do with his unsettled personal life: two years ago he left his wife, Angela, and their two daughters and he now lives with Teresa Gleadowe, the former head of information at the Tate. 'But I don't think that's a reason to leave London,' he says when asked about it. 'My family's here. My roots are here. My interests are here.' He would like a second term.

The 10 trustees who will decide are subject to shifting loyalties. ''Tate trustees fall in and out of love with their director and I'll only discover whether they have fallen out of love with me in 1995 when they discuss my contract.' Are they in or out of love at the moment? 'The jury's out,' says Serota.

If our own art critic, Tim Hilton, had a vote, Serota would worry. 'Directors of the Tate,' says Hilton, 'must be judged by their building programmes, their acquisitions, their preservation of scholarly standards, and their good relations with contemporary artists. On the last three points, Nicholas Serota does not score highly.' But Hilton admits that if Serota can create a new Museum of Modern Art in London, while also giving us a fine museum of historic British art, then he will have made an historic contribution.

Hilton's tone catches the mood of the moment. It is not generous, but the art world is not big-hearted. Even Waddington expresses a nagging doubt: 'He has quite individual taste in individual pictures, but the danger is that he is caught up in the Zeitgeist of his generation.'

To an outsider the most interesting fact about taste is that many of the greatest artists of the past 125 years have been derided by critics in their lifetime (van Gogh sold only one painting). Most of the great museums of the world took chances by buying these artists before they became famous. A decent Director of the Tate is therefore bound to make mistakes, and if he does not take risks he is failing in his public duty.

Dennis Stevenson seems confident that Serota will get a second term, and he has a warning for the critics. 'He's trodden a careful path over the last five years. If anything, the criticism should be that Nick Serota hasn't been modernist enough. I hope and expect he'll be more so in the years to come.'

The best thing to do is to take a big gulp, and wish him well. -

(Photographs omitted)