The war between the Tates

Tate Modern at Bankside, which opened in March with a blaze of publicity, has just celebrated its two millionth visitor. Which is a disaster for Tate Britain at Millbank, where attendances have plummeted. Can the Pre-Raphaelites ever compete with Damien Hirst?
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The Independent Online

Of course, I'd heard rumours. People were coming back from Tate Modern, saying it's absolutely packed, you can't move, you can't get in, we just turned round and went home, it's a nightmare. Whereas people were coming back from Tate Britain - or rather they weren't, that was the thing, I never spoke to anyone coming back from Tate Britain, except for an artist who'd been installing her own work there, who said nobody ever comes in, the building stands empty for days on end, it's a graveyard. So I decided to go and look.

Of course, I'd heard rumours. People were coming back from Tate Modern, saying it's absolutely packed, you can't move, you can't get in, we just turned round and went home, it's a nightmare. Whereas people were coming back from Tate Britain - or rather they weren't, that was the thing, I never spoke to anyone coming back from Tate Britain, except for an artist who'd been installing her own work there, who said nobody ever comes in, the building stands empty for days on end, it's a graveyard. So I decided to go and look.

Exactly five months ago, the Tate Gallery's former Millbank site turned into Tate Britain, with a little bit of ceremony. Six weeks later, Tate Modern opened at Bankside with a campaign of publicity unrivalled in the history of British art. Now one shouldn't overstate the scope of such campaigns. For instance, I was impressed to find recently that my father, who lives in London and reads newspapers etc, had never heard of Tate Modern, had no idea what I was talking about.

Still, if there is some disparity in attendance between the two London branches of the gallery, the explanation isn't mysterious. One is a new gallery, in a huge and spectacularly revamped building, launched in media glory. The other isn't. As for the contents, the contest is clear. British art versus modern art? The birth of Tate Modern meant that the strange old compound Tate was cleanly separated. The provincial, historical, dull stuff was left in the old home. The international, recent, happening stuff went to the new. Even the styles of curating are in high contrast. Both galleries do non-chronological, thematic hangs. Tate Modern's is immensely chic; Tate Britain's a cheerful mess.

Last Friday, Tate Modern declared its two millionth visitor. Last Sunday, a fairish Sunday in the middle of August, seemed the sort of day when people, Londoners or tourists, might well go to the Tates, and so a good day to check them both out.

First to Tate Britain. On the way I was trying to think what a weekend visit to the Millbank building would have been like a year ago, when it was just the Tate Gallery. The clearest memory was of the obstructed entrance: you had to pick your way with care through the crowds sitting all over the front steps, and then just inside the door a host of zealous Tate staff would pounce, pressing a copy of tate magazine upon each visitor. But last Sunday access was easy. The steps were pretty clear,and there were no tate vendors in sight. As for visitors...

It didn't look good, but in a way it was a particularly bad moment. The large Mona Hatoum works that lately filled the central Duveen sculpture gallery have gone, and nothing's yet replaced them, leaving no reason for anyone to go into this space. So currently Tate Britain's main vista presents a spectacular void.

The galleries weren't that much fuller. Not empty of course, but not frequented; visitor levels at, I guess, what a year ago would be a quiet weekday. The fact that the nearest Tube station, Pimlico, is closed at the moment can't help.

The scattered visitors had a listless air, perhaps because on a Sunday outing to a major gallery one expects more company, and having the place to oneself feels like having come to the wrong place; or perhaps because the unfocused nature of the display - there are times where the pictures might as well have been hung in alphabetical order - infects the viewer too. Only in the Turner rooms, which are much as they were, did numbers and energy seem to pick up.

As for special attractions, Tate Britain isn't trying hard. There's an "in focus" display devoted to Hogarth's last and most boring painting, Sigismunda. There's a show of Norwich school landscape watercolours (Cotman et al) which you have to pay £2.50 to see - but you can glimpse into it from the entrance, and it looks much like other rooms you don't have to pay for. And then there's "Intelligence: New British Art 2000", a very large contemporary anthology show, which has some good things, but nothing which has captured the media's imagination, and it costs £6.

Now, I've seen emptier shows in this building. The Ellsworth Kelly exhibition a few years ago, say, was for periods completely without viewers. And that was nice for those who did go in. Solitude and silence suited those great fields of colour very well.

But then, there's an important distinction. Some art shows are like halls of meditation, best enjoyed alone. Some are like theatres, where you want an audience around you. "Intelligence" is a choppy, chatty, buzzy sort of show, where your fellow viewers' reactions are part of the experience, and it needs more fellow viewers to make it work. It needs to be free. The other problem "Intelligence" has is that many people who want to see it believe it's at Tate Modern.

To Tate Modern. The last time I went to Tate Modern, in fact the only time I've been during proper public hours, I had a bit of luck because there had just been a bomb scare, and the whole building was evacuated, and many people took the opportunity not to come back.

The public was being held off behind police tapes a couple of streets awayfrom the gallery, and, as we waited, jokes were passed. A suspicious object? How could they tell? Perhaps it was an oil painting! (I thought: isn't there actually a themed room in Tate Modern called The Suspicious Object?)

Then it was the all-clear, and the public was re-admitted, but not before being restrained by one final bit of police tape, stretched across the top of the long, wide entrance ramp, holding the crowd back like marathon runners. Tape dropped, we all flooded in. Obviously it was an untypical visit. The numbers had been artificially thinned. It was Friday late opening too (Friday and Saturday evenings are the quietest times). Still, it felt quite busy.

But nothing like last Sunday. The giant entrance hall wasn't such a crush, though tate vendors were in evidence. But up in the galleries, of which there are many, but many are small, the pressure really mounted. In some it felt like there was a border of wall-huggers (the people looking at the pictures) and the rest of the space was crammed with folk struggling to get to somewhere else.

The single video showing rooms, stationed on the main visitor routes so you have to pass through them, became the worst bottle necks. They offer only a narrow through-corridor, and you get one file of people moving one way, another file moving the other way, and another file trying to stand and watch the video, all in near darkness.

If you want to be indoors among throbbing multitudes on a Sunday afternoon, this is the place to come. But I was glad I hadn't come primarily to look at art, because that would have been a complete waste of time. It was a bit too crowded even for looking at people.

The special exhibition, "Between Cinema and a Hard Place", a miscellany of sculptural and video installations, costs £3 to enter, and is less thronged. Here, and it's the only area, viewing conditions are fine. Tate Modern is keen not to restrict admissions. But with an average of 20,000 coming daily, the art is being suffocated by the gallery's success. Presumably, at some point, numbers will start falling off, though that doesn't look imminent.

And at Tate Britain, they'll start picking up. It hopes. It has held onto the Turner Prize, and the autumn Turner Prize Exhibition has become a big puller in recent years, which may help (so long as people don't presume it too is at Tate Modern). There's a William Blake blockbuster in November. Pimlico Tube station will re-open. And in autumn 2001 it will have a complete re-launch, with the end of its current mish-mash displays. In a way that will be the real opening - with the intervening year and a half as time out, de facto closure, a token presence offering the least possible competition to the new outlet down the river.

At Tate Modern there's nothing much happening exhibition-wise for some time. The Louise Bourgeois towers and spider come down in November. There a big special exhibition, "Century City", opening next February. But then it hardly needs any extra pulling power. What it needs is more bomb scares.

Meanwhile, the exhibit most sought-after by visitors is Tracey Emin's My Bed, which is not on show at either venue, and I don't think it even belongs to the Tate. But if Tate Britain could get hold of it and put it slap in the middle of the Duveen Gallery, all its problems might be over.

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