Extending Tate Modern: a modest proposal

Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Extending Tate Modern: a modest proposal

As they put the finishing touches to the museum’s £260 million extension, you might be forgiven for the following heresy: Tate Modern would be better if they made it smaller rather than larger. At the latest estimates, the gallery draws 5.7 million visitors each year. It was designed to accommodate less than half that number. So clearly there is a numerical need for more space, and there is a well founded belief that if you build such things as this, they will come. If six million people want to visit Bankside each year for the express purpose of looking at art, who could possibly object?

Extending Tate Modern: a modest proposal

As they put the finishing touches to the museum’s £260 million extension, you might be forgiven for the following heresy: Tate Modern would be better if they made it smaller rather than larger. At the latest estimates, the gallery draws 5.7 million visitors each year. It was designed to accommodate less than half that number. So clearly there is a numerical need for more space, and there is a well founded belief that if you build such things as this, they will come. If six million people want to visit Bankside each year for the express purpose of looking at art, who could possibly object?

Well, objection is too strong a reaction here. But there is a good argument that to look at art, to really look at art, you will be better off in one of the capital’s less monumental spaces. Tate has more work than you could possibly see in a single trip. Even the regular exhibitions are exhaustive enough to deny you a sense of closure. Some will grumble about the crowds and costs incurred at these blockbusters. But the real drawback to, say, Mona Hatoum this summer, is the exhaustive scale of the display. There is clearly a reason people opt for Tate Membership and unlimited visits. But as they increase gallery space by 60 percent and bump up the programme of talks, workshops and seminars (in the purpose built Tate Exchange) there is hardly any limit to what you can see and do. 

But a short ride away on the Jubilee Line and you could find yourself in a white cube public space of an altogether different stripe. Exhibitions at Camden Arts Centre are relatively small, but on a much more human scale. You can expect to dwell in their two galleries for between one or two unhurried hours. And you can take home a scholarly ‘file note’ for a mere £1. You will have take-out and you will have taken it in. And as you sit with your companions in the uncrowded cafe or garden, you will enjoy all the quietness you could need to reflect on what you have just seen.

Camden is not an anomaly. Satisfying art fixes like this are available all across the capital at public spaces such as South London Gallery, Cubitt, Gasworks, Whitechapel, and Serpentine. Any one of these venues can offer you a day out with a bit more focus than one spent wandering the endless galleries at Tate. (Or indeed ascending and descending the new statement staircase in Herzog + de Meuron’s mindblowing tower.) Getting to grips with any of the art when faced with such choice will be like trying to eat an apple the size of a beachball. In the permanent display at Tate Modern it’s already near impossible to get purchase. 

It’s a modest proposal and it comes much too late, but might not the money spent on the vast new Switch House have been better dispersed all around the capital on a network of smaller spaces? What would it look like if, instead of one stunning ziggurat, mid June had seen the inauguration of Tate Hackney, Tate Peckham, Tate Streatham, even Tate Croydon. Take one refurbished space, build in a cafe and a book shop, and employ a curator with the keys to Tate’s storerooms. Much would have been possible.

In this parallel universe, we could have dispersed the tourists and offered quality rather than sheer quantity. It is unthinkable, of course. Statement architecture draws funds and visitors. If you like crowds and starchitecture, there will be nowhere better for you on June 17th than Tate Modern.

If however, you prefer a fighting chance to contemplate whatever comes between you and the fresh paintwork, don’t overlook the UK’s smaller galleries. Thanks to the publicity around Tate Modern, our hidden gems will remain hidden.

Image source: http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern/new-tate-modern/building

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