How Nicholas Serota’s Tate changed Britain

By Charlotte Higgins

Over three decades, he transformed a nation’s attitude to art. But is his revolution now in danger of being reversed? By Charlotte Higgins

In 1970, if you had said that London would one day become the centre of the international art world, the successor to Paris before the first world war and New York after the second, most people would have thought you mad. The gleaming commercial galleries, the art fairs, the record-breaking sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the arrival of the super-rich from every corner of the globe – all of this was decades away. Large parts of the city were still pitted and scarred from the bombs of the blitz. The port and docks on the Thames in east London were so completely derelict that people assumed they would be like that for ever. Most people didn’t even notice the power station that crouched opposite St Paul’s Cathedral – for there was no Southwark tube station, no elegantly engineered footbridge across the river, no glassy apartments, no Shakespeare’s Globe, no scenic path along the water’s edge to Tower Bridge. No one imagined that this behemoth, then still a decade away from being decommissioned, would one day become the world’s most popular museum of modern and contemporary art.

Tate, now an empire of four museums, and a global brand, was then a single entity: the Tate Gallery, which occupied the building now known as Tate Britain, in Pimlico. It played second fiddle to the grander National Gallery, from which it had recently become independent, and had a rambling and uneven collection divided into “British art” and “modern foreign paintings”, as if contemporary art were a vice conducted mainly overseas. It had some great pictures, and hosted some memorable exhibitions: among them was 1964’s Painting and Sculpture of a Decade, a survey of the previous 10 years of contemporary art that, for an 18-year-old Hampstead schoolboy named Nicholas Serota, had fanned the flames of an interest in art; five decades later, he recalled its “bright colours and American art and a sense that things were changing”. But for most British artists, particularly those of the rising generation, the Tate Gallery was marginal. “The best you could hope for there was a one-man show the year before you kicked over,” recalls sculptor Richard Deacon, who was a student in 1970.

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