With Hyundai sponsoring the Turbine Hall, does the Tate Modern still need so much public cash?

The museum is something of a seasoned operator in wooing the private sector

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He’s done it again. Sir Nicholas Serota, the high master of the visual arts world and champion of the immaculately cut suit. This is a man at home with both the high-rollers of private funding and the democracy of free admission. The careful genius behind the devolution of Tate. The brains behind the deliberately provocative Turner Prize. Above all, Serota is the engineer of Tate Modern. More than a decade after it opened, Tate Modern remains the most popular contemporary art gallery in the world. It doesn’t have the world’s best collection, or the best building. It puts on difficult, often relatively unknown work. And yet it seems as if every single young person in London and every single tourist – to name just two social groupings – wants to go there. Every week.

Is it any surprise then, that people with money want to be associated with Tate Modern? The most recent romance is with South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai – which has picked up where Unilever left off – as sponsor of the Turbine Hall, the severe jewel in the gallery’s redbrick crown. Apparently Hyundai was just one of several potential contenders. I can believe it. Which corporate giant would not want to be associated with the Turbine Hall? It is globally renowned, and it is free. People want to be there, because it promises excitement. It has been home to giant spiders, slides, millions of porcelain sunflower seeds, and Damien Hirst’s silly, diamond-studded skull. Most famously of all, it had Olafur Eliasson’s giant yellow sun, which made straightforward human beings go utterly doo-lally and start lying down on the floor.

How much will Tate get from Hyundai for 11 years of this sort of stuff? The previous sponsor, Unilever slapped down £4.4m. It’s thought that the latest deal is worth about £6m. Hyundai has also paid for Tate to acquire nine video works by the venerated South Korean artist, the late Nam June Paik, which is jolly handy. Indeed, Hyundai’s generosity has relieved at least one of Tate’s patrons – the Government – of a significant financial burden, since it would be unthinkable to have an empty Turbine Hall.

Actually, when you tie in the Turbine Hall deal with Tate Modern’s recent fund-raising exercise, it is clear that Tate is something of a seasoned operator in wooing the private sector. The aim is to raise £158m in order to fund a colossal £215m extension, of which £57m will come from the public purse. So far, Tate has already raised 80 per cent of its target. Knowing this, it’s quite difficult to see why Tate Modern even needs regular injections of public cash. Perhaps the annual income stream coming from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (currently in the form of a £31m grant in aid), should go to less successful, less popular enterprises.

Galleries which do not have restaurants overlooking the Thames, retrospectives of Damien Hirst or 5.5 million visitors a year, for example. Small, unloved, less ambitious galleries. Museums which need new windows, not new wings. Collections which have yellowing postcards in musty shops and count their annual visitor figures by the hundreds. Places which are not connected by bespoke bridges to St Paul’s Cathedral, but are in tourist deserts.

Or not. Maybe it’s the most popular which should get the people’s shilling? Tate Modern is beloved by the taxpayer; perhaps it is right and proper that this is where our money goes. After all, it’s not as if Tate Modern always exhibits the sweet stuff. It is not the venue for retrospectives of Van Gogh, Vermeer or Velazquez (to name some regular crowd-pleasers). Yes, it shows Picasso and Matisse, but it also brings tricky, innovative and challenging work to the table – Jikken Kobo, anyone? – and stands back as people from all backgrounds flock to experience it. Perhaps it ought to be regarded as a public service model wherein private enterprise and Government subsidy are not in opposition but walk together, hand in hand under a giant electric sun. 

Teenager + parental credit card = all sort of problems

Teenagers think that a credit card is access to free money. I know this because my son, aged 14, wishes for a bank account because “you get a card”. Tell him this is not a license to spend sack-loads of cash and he just starts half-closing his eyes.

Obviously, he is not of the same stableyard as the “boarding school runaways” Edward Bunyan and Indira Gainiyeva, who were able to get as far as the Dominican Republic on the strength of their credit cards. Never mind. It was quite a relief to see that the parents of posh kids can still give their kids a good old tongue-lashing, as evinced from the sheepish face of Bunyan being hustled into a car by his mother, who had marched out to the Caribbean in order to find them. I’ll really laugh if it transpires the scamp is related to John Bunyan. The adventure was indeed a progress of sorts, although Edward is probably not a pilgrim in the way John envisaged.

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