Next year the director of a small museum outside Copenhagen will take over the new Tate at Bankside. Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery, visited Lars Nittve's spiritual home
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TO ANYONE involved in the world of museums, the mention of Louisiana does not bring to mind a southern state in the United States, full of mint juleps and ante-bellum mansions, but a 1950s museum north of Copenhagen, which has become the symbol of the post-war democratic movement in museum design. Louisiana Museum, founded by Knud Jensen and opened in 1958, marked the move away from the previous tradition in museums of grand, old, mostly 19th-century buildings in decaying city centres towards a belief that the experience of art should be out-of-town. Art, and particularly modern art, was expected to be combined with a day in the country. At Louisiana, aesthetic experience was intended to be less strenuous and less systematic than it was when governed by the old-fashioned belief in morally improving museum fatigue. In other words, Louisiana is not so much a place, more a state of mind.

Louisiana is of particular interest to the British art world at the moment because Sir Nicholas Serota, the recently ennobled director of the Tate Gallery, has appointed Lars Nittve, the former director of Louisiana, to be director of the new Tate Gallery of Modem Art at Bankside, due to open next May. Bankside is one of the most important developments in museums in this country and is certain to make an enormous impact internationally. It will be Britain's first kunsthalle, designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in the coolest and most sophisticated style of contemporary international modernism, a piece of ultra-clinical Swiss engineering within the much rougher carcass of the old Bankside power station. One might, therefore, have expected its director to be part of the black-suited international art brigade - the agreeable surprise is to find that Lars Nittve is a large and amiable Swede.

I had never been to Louisiana until earlier this year when I discovered that it is possible to visit it on a day trip from London (but only just), flying from Stansted Airport early in the morning and then taking a train from Copenhagen airport through the northern suburbs of the city up the coast towards Elsinore and looking across to Sweden.

The entrance to the museum is deceptive, deliberately. One walks down the street from Humlebaek, the railway station, until one finds a small, mid-19th-century hunting lodge by the side of the road surrounded by trees and in the middle of a car park. This is the house which Knud Jensen bought in 1954 as the site for his museum. As Jensen himself described the idea as he talked about the project over a cup of coffee in the museum cafe, he had become bored with having to visit the museums of central Copenhagen on Sundays when the city was deserted, the shops were closed, and most Danes wanted to escape into the countryside. He decided to establish his museum in a park by the sea, close to nature, so that sculpture, in particular, could be seen surrounded by grass.

Now 82, and having celebrated last year the 40th anniversary of the opening of Louisiana, Knud Jensen is a remarkable person, small, animated and elfin, belonging to the generation of early Bang & Olufsen and still presiding over his creation. Born in 1916, he was the heir to a prosperous dairy business, but, like a figure in a novel by Thomas Mann, he decided that he was more interested in literature, music and the arts than in cheese. During the 1930s he made friends with poets at university in Copenhagen. In 1950, he organ-ised a programme called "Art in the Workplace", whereby 40 companies subscribed to a scheme which made it possible for travelling exhibitions of contemporary art to be shown in factory canteens. In 1952, he founded a literary magazine called Heretica.

Some time in the early 1950s Jensen was asked in a radio interview what he thought of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He described his reply in a profile published in the New Yorker in 1982: "I hadn't particularly thought about the Royal Museum in some time, I guess I just took it for granted. But prior to the interview I went over to take a look with fresh spectacles. And I was dumb-founded. It was a true horror cabinet, very much the 19th-century bourgeoisie's exaggerated view of its own importance, manifested in the transcendent value of the art it prized. It was a real art temple - huge, fat columns, a broad forbidding marble staircase, rows and rows of plaster busts, dark alcoves. During the interview, I therefore started criticising the museum saying that it was a relic and had nothing to do with the art of our time. `So what do you propose?' the journalist demanded. Well - just improvising - I suggested that they ought to move out into the museum's large park, get a good architect, build a low pavilion, with not too high ceilings and good lighting, and move all the modem stuff out there." Soon afterwards an opportunity arose for him to sell his business to Krafft, the international dairy foods conglomerate, and he decided to invest the bulk of the profits in his vision of a new kind of museum.

The first thing he did was to buy the site, an old house and park near where he lived. Then he recruited two like-minded architects, Jorgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert. He must have recognised that they had the capability to design what he wanted. I sense that, like any good client, he was instrumental in influencing the quality of the architecture. In fact, the best part of the museum buildings remains the original core, a set of loose spaces and corridors extending northwards along the side of a small lake to the cafeteria on a terrace looking out over the sea. This part of the museum is the epitome of the best aspects of post-war Danish design: simple glass corridors, looking out on to carefully placed sculpture in the park, succeeded by white gallery spaces with light wood ceilings, all of it with a careful sense of geometry and top lighting. It is an architecture which is beautifully constructed and humane. To begin with, Louisiana was intended to be at least as much a local arts centre as a gallery of international art. The paintings which were acquired in the first few years were mostly those of Danish contemporaries, and the experience of art was only one part of a trip to the museum, which was expected also to include events such as jazz concerts and poetry readings. But then, in 1959, Jensen visited the Documenta exhibition in Kassel and decided that Louisiana could open the eyes of Danes to contemporary art from all over the world. He began to acquire works by artists such as Joseph Albers, Morris Louis and Naum Gabo, and in the 1960s by pop artists including Andy Warhol. During the 1960s many artists visited Louisiana from all over the world and presented works to the collection, recognising its importance and the benefits for their art to be seen in such a setting.

In 1969, Jensen recruited another contemporary art lover, Steingrim Laursen, to help him in the enterprise. Laursen, like Jensen, had not been trained as an art historian (they remain sceptical of the art historical point of view, believing that the experience of art is more important than the description of its history). Instead he was a lawyer with an enthusiasm for American minimalism and a member of the international board of the Museum of Modem Art in New York. Laursen was able to extend the collection with a high degree of artistic intelligence and good international contacts, for example acquiring a wonderful group of early works by Anselm Kiefer. As a result, the collection has a much greater depth than one might expect, including works by the British artists Henry Moore, Richard Hamilton, Richard Long and Antony Gormley. In contrast to many contemporary museums, like the new Museum of Modem Art in San Francisco, which often consist of excessively grandiose architecture and visitor facilities and a relatively small permanent collection, Louisiana is the opposite, a great museum masquerading as a small one.

The museum grew organically to accommodate the gradual growth of its collection. In 1966 and 1971, minor additions were made to accommodate exhibitions. In 1976, a concert hall was added under the cafeteria. In 1982, a long arm was stretched out eastwards from the original building to produce a set of larger but still subtly modulated spaces which are cooler and slightly more industrial in feel than the original galleries, but which end up in a small room where visitors are encouraged to rest and recuperate as they look out over the sea. This constant tendency to think about the experience of the visitor and how they might relate to works of art in order to create a sense of exploration, of alternate discovery and recovery, together with the opportunity to go outside, is what makes Louisiana special.

The only part of the building which I did not find entirely sympathetic was the addition of 1991, most of which is underground and which completes the loop between the two previous long arms of the building. Until 1991, all the work was supervised by the two original architects. But while the 1991 addition was still nominally under their super- vision, it was more directly the responsibility of Vilhelm Wohlert's son, Claus, and is in a style which is a shade too ritzy for my taste, with polished marble floors and ornate roof structures, which only serves to reinforce one's admiration for the quality and simplicity of the original buildings.

Once I had seen Louisiana, it became clear that it is a completely different type and style of museum from the new Tate Gallery of Modem Art and not really sensible to compare them. So what was it that made Lars Nittve want to move from being in command at Louisiana (well, not quite in command, because the presence of both Knud Jensen and Steingrim Laursen is still strongly felt) to being number two to Sir Nick? I had lunch with Lars Nittve at the Tate Gallery's excellent restaurant to find out.

Nittve had been at Louisiana for only three years when he moved to the Tate. He had been appointed by Jensen and Laursen, who had recognised that they were going to have to hand on the baton to a new generation. Nittve was an obvious candidate. Trained as an art historian at Stockholm University, he had previously been art critic for the Svenska Dagbladet, the Swedish equivalent of the Guardian. He then worked as chief curator for the Museum of Modem Art in Stockholm, before being appointed Director of the Rooseum Centre for Contemporary Art in Malmo. He was expected to establish connections with a new generation of younger artists and to prevent the Museum from becoming simply a relic of post-war social democratic idealism. Then last summer he spotted the advertisement for the job at the Tate. He already knew Nicholas Serota quite well on the international circuit of museum directors.

I asked Nittve, "What do you think you will bring from Louisiana to Bankside?"

His answer was studiously diplomatic, stressing the need for contemporary museums to be attentive to the needs of visitors, to make the experience of the visitor at least as important as the experience of the art. He is hostile to the idea of art as a pantheon of canonical masterpieces and is more interested in its connections to broader aspects of social experience. Clearly Bankside is a move into the unknown as well as into the big league of internationally significant collections, on a scale quite different from that of Louisiana.

I asked him about what he thought was the original impulse behind the decision to build Louisiana.

Nittve suggested to me that Knud Jensen had been influenced in his ideas for Louisiana by the experience of post-war America, recognising a broad historical movement towards consumerism, as if Louisiana were a cultural version of an out-of-town shopping mall. It sounded superficially plausible, the idea of a businessman travelling the east coast of America after the war and seeing the future. But I am more sceptical. It seems to me that Louisiana is much more about taking visitors out of their everyday and ordinary life and giving them an intense experience of contemporary art in a non-consumerist, even anti-consumerist, setting.

When I visited Louisiana, I was able to ask Steingrim Laursen if there was any truth in Nittve's suggestion. He was dubious. He even telephoned me subsequently to confirm that Knud Jensen did not feel that the influences on him were in any sense American: the idea clearly appalled them both.

I ended my visit to Louisiana by asking Steingrim Laursen what he thought Lars Nittve would bring from Louisiana to Bankside. He, too, was politely diplomatic, refusing to be drawn into speculation, although I had a slight sense of sadness that Nittve's directorship at Louisiana had come to a premature end, a sense of lost opportunities and of a break in the apostolic succession. He said that he, like the rest of the art world, would watch and see.

When I spoke to Laursen subsequently, he made clear that he regards Louisiana and Bankside as completely different projects, since Louisiana is so small-scale, trying to create an intense experience and relationship with art in an out-of-town setting. But the lesson that Louisiana teaches remains a valid one for museums everywhere: that art is not necessarily experienced best in a big, overbearing, metropolitan space, but can be appreciated at least as well in a small-scale, slightly domestic setting. The nearest equivalents to Louisiana in this country are Kettle's Yard in Cambridge or, for that matter, the Tate Gallery in St Ives, which has a relatively small number of works on display at any one time.

So we will all watch and see what Nittve brings from Louisiana to Bankside. Perhaps he can soften some of Bankside's hard edges and cavernous spaces in order to create an atmosphere that is not too intimidating. He says that one of his top priorities is to make sure that the restaurant at Bankside serves some decent wine. This suggests that he has learned well the lesson that the experience of visiting a museum nowadays is about more than just the art. 1