David Lister: Ten years of Tate Modern – and the challenges are just beginning

The Week in Arts
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Tate Modern is about to celebrate its 10th birthday, a few days after its guiding spirit and overall director Sir Nicholas Serota celebrated his 64th.

Happy birthday to both of them. When I revealed in this paper well over a decade ago that Sir Nicholas was planning a national gallery of modern art, and campaigned for the project, I never dreamed quite how successful his creation would be. I'm not sure that he did, either.

He has succeeded not just in choosing an architecturally interesting building (the old Bankside power station) and making it a showcase for international modern and contemporary art; he has also made it a "destination", that elusive aspiration of every arts venue. Visitor numbers projected to be 1.8 million a year have in fact turned out to be 4.7 million. In short, it is the most popular modern art venue in the world.

Many exhibitions have been outstanding, not least the Turbine Hall installations. (It is hard to forget lying on the floor with scores of others and gazing up at Olafur Eliasson's bright sun.)

But the 10th anniversary party atmosphere, with a three-day festival of art and music, should not preclude the odd quibble, and the odd area for improvement. The art establishment doesn't like to spend too much time discussing visitor travel arrangements when there is conceptual art to discuss, but I continue to maintain that such things are important; the fact is that parking at Tate Modern is almost non-existent, and the walk to and from the nearest stations is, particularly after dark, not very pleasant.

On more artistic matters, it's an irony that the public has showed itself to be rather more conservative than Sir Nicholas on modern art. The most popular exhibitions, by a mile, have been those old stagers Matisse, Picasso, Warhol, Rothko and Hopper. But so what? Serota and his lieutenants have programmed the place cleverly enough to ensure that on a visit to Matisse you will see enough that's cutting edge in adjoining rooms and the Turbine Hall.

The latter, though, can be a home to the more pretentious side of contemporary art curating. The five giant slides by Carsten Holler that served as one installation were not an artistic statement. They were fairground slides. Art is not art merely because Tate Modern tells us it is. A clearer narrative that tells the story of modern and contemporary art is a challenge for the next decade.

Like one or two other commentators, I am a little queasy that Tate Modern's board of trustees included the deputy chairman of Sotheby's Europe, an organisation that can profit from artists having exposure at Tate Modern. Such potential conflicts of interest need to be addressed. And I'm afraid I have huge doubts that the planned £215m extension will be built in the present economic climate. More than £130m has still to be raised, and the world needs to be convinced that an extension is essential at a time of austerity.

It has been an astonishing decade for Tate Modern, surpassing all expectations. But the next 10 years will be harder.

It's always the quiet ones

The wonderful singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell broke quite a long period of silence a few days ago to launch a scathing attack on Bob Dylan. In a strange interview in which she also said she was suffering from a disease which meant that "fibres in a variety of colours protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm: they cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable or mineral", she said of her fellow superstar: "Bob is not authentic at all. He's a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception."

I think I may have the motive for this seemingly unprovoked attack. Back in 1974 Mitchell and Dylan were on the same record label, run by David Geffen. When the young Joni Mitchell recorded her highly regarded album Court and Spark, Geffen played it back to the two of them.

While it was playing Dylan fell asleep. Some versions of the incident have it that he merely pretended to be asleep, though I'm not sure that's any less rude. There are even versions that have him pretending to snore.

My hunch is that a girl does not forget such a slight. It may have taken her until now to wreak her revenge, but I'm sure it has been brewing since that day in 1974.

Generous promises for free things

Last week I detailed what the manifestos of the main parties said about the arts. Since then I have been mulling over one particular pledge from the Labour manifesto. It promises "lifetime library membership for every child from birth".

That sounds rather splendid, until you think about it. Surely, every child has lifetime library membership from birth now. All he or she has to do is nip down to the library a few years after birth and claim the free membership. I wonder what promises we can look forward to next time. We might get the lifetime right to play in the local park from birth. Or there might be a fabulous pledge to give us lifetime freedom to jog on the pavement from birth.

Who knows, they might pull out the stops and give us lifetime permission to listen to the radio from birth.