Tate Modern boss quits for job in his native Sweden

Lars Nittve, who presided over a glittering opening and hugely successful first year, is to go home after request from Swedish PM
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The director of Tate Modern, Britain's great cultural success story, resigned yesterday. Lars Nittve, who presided over the glittering opening of Britain's first national museum of contemporary art, said he had decided to return to his native Sweden.

Mr Nittve, 47, is to run the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, unquestionably a smaller and internationally less important venture than Tate Modern.

A close colleague said that Nittve had been telephoned by the Prime Minister of Sweden, and this personal request weighed very heavily with him. Mr Nittve, who is divorced, would also be closer to his small son, who lives in Sweden.

Nittve's decision came as a shock to the art world yesterday. But while there was acknowledgement that he would be keen on a top job in Sweden, there was also recognition of the difficulties of running Tate Modern in the shadow of Sir Nicholas Serota, the overall director of all of the four Tate galleries in Britain.

One Tate insider said: "The tension at meetings involving Nick and Lars was often palpable. Lars would suggest ideas. But Nick would make many of the decisions."

Sir Nicholas revealed last year that he would have liked to take on the post himself but the trustees had ruled against it. Sir Nicholas said yesterday: "Lars has made an outstanding success of the opening of Tate Modern and we all owe him a debt of gratitude."

Tate Modern was one of the genuine successes of the millennium year. So was the opening night party. Tickets were said to be changing hands at £1,000 each. Yoko Ono rubbed shoulders with Sir Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger, Sir Richard Eyre, the theatre director, Kylie Minogue and Jarvis Cocker were among the 4,000 guests who drank more than 2,000 bottles of champagne and ate 28,000 canapes.

Lars Nittve was his usual demure if dapper self throughout proceedings: a man with a taste for Timothy Everest suits, a generous smile and a willingness to engage in debate about his gallery and contemporary art: an inclination that set him apart from his fellow modern art gallery heads.

He was also keen to introduce ideas that had for years defeated the Tate regime, such as a riverboat linking the Tate's two London galleries. That idea has yet to be put into practice.

Nittve started his career in his home city of Stockholm at the museum to which he will now return as director. Largely unknown in this country, he was a surprise choice to head up what was effectively Britain's first national gallery of modern art.

Yet he beat off candidates from the United States and some big names from this country, including the Serpentine's Julia Peyton-Jones and the Tate's own assistant director, Sandy Nairne.

"Great Britain really does seem to be bursting with creative energy at the moment," he said on arrival.

But he did not reckon with one key aspect of Britain's creative energy: the towering figure of Sir Nicholas Serota. The Tate's overall director brought in Nittve, but was never going to hand over all responsibility for establishing a contemporary art gallery to show off to the world.

Serota retained a hands-on role in the Bankside project and in the exhibitions policy once the gallery was up and running. Insiders say that Nittve became frustrated.

Associates report that meetings between Serota, Nittve and Stephen Deuchar, who runs Tate Britain, had their tensions, with Nittve and Deuchar putting up ideas which Serota then decided upon.

"Ultimately, the power rests with Nick," said one senior source. "Stephen Deuchar and Lars kind of have control, but they are neither particularly strong people, or maybe have never been given the opportunity to be strong. At at the same time, Nick is a great director, and will suddenly step in and hang the pictures himself."