Spiders, sunbathing and slides: Ten years of the Tate Modern
By Annette Reuther May 27, 2010, 14:14 GMT
A visitor walks by as British artist Damien Hirst\'s installation \'False Idol\' is exhibited during the \'Pop Life, Art In A Material World\' press view held at the Tate Modern in London, Britain, 29 September 2009. EPA/DANIEL DEME
London - It all started with an exhibit featuring a giant spider. Later visitors slid down a huge slide and sunned themselves under an enormous artificial sun. Finally, they lumbered around inside a dark box.
These are some experiences the more than 30 million visitors to London's Tate Modern museum of modern and contemporary art have had in the last 10 years.
What makes the Tate Modern one of the best-known museums in the world? Is it the spectacular installations in the five-storey high turbine hall? The collection of modern and contemporary art? Or is it simply the building, a former power station, and its position on the River Thames opposite St Paul's Cathedral? Whatever it is, the huge museum has become so popular that an expansion is being planned.
Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Galleries, said the people who worked to create the museum always imagined it would be popular.
'It comes I think from the building, and it comes from the way in which the art has been shown,' Serota said in an interview with the Financial Times. 'It has ... become an institution that people regard as very approachable.'
The building is indeed breathtaking. Architect Giles Gilbert Scott, known for having designed the British telephone booth, drew the plans for the brick colossus in the '40s. It stands on the south bank of the river opposite St Paul's. Nicknamed the cathedral of energy, the building was meant to look powerful, but the 99-metre-high chimney was intentionally built 15 metres shorter than St Paul's cupola.
The history of the Tate Modern is also a story about the metamorphosis of London. When the Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron began transforming the power station into a museum, the image of London was also changing.
The Tate Modern opened on May 12, 2000 coinciding with the Southwark district's transformation from a neglected part of the city into an up-and-coming area. Suddenly, people could again feel secure living south of the river. There are now glass-paned apartment buildings in which only wealthy people can afford to live. The Millennium Bridge by architect Norman Foster is used by masses of people daily crossing on foot from north to south or vice versa.
The opening of the Tate Modern was also a milestone for art. London has top-class art museums - the National Gallery and the Tate Britain, the mother of the Tate Modern. But before the Tate Modern, London, unlike Paris and New York, didn't have a museum for modern and contemporary art.
The timing of the start of construction was ideal. London was booming in the late '90s. The financial sector brought in money and contemporary British art made a sensation. Collector Charles Saatchi made artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin famous.
'Charles also brought a lot of collectors to London and made London seem a place you had to visit if you wanted to see contemporary art,' Serota told the FT.
The collection begins with works from 1900 and reaches through today. The works, including some from Matisse, Picasso, Dali, Rothko and Beuys, are ordered thematically, not chronologically. That's partly because, unlike the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern's collection is fragmentary. Arranging the works chronologically would lay open this fact. To avoid this a new concept was tried out.
'The thinking was very clear. And that was that we couldn't go on showing the collection in the standard way in which most museums show their collections, essentially chronologically,' Serota said. It didn't reflect the way artists were thinking or the way people were thinking about the 20th century.
Visitors appreciate the new way of showing the collection. Initially, the number of visitors annually was expected to be about 2 million. It's now almost 5 million. One reason for its popularity is most certainly the spectacular installations in the turbine hall.
'You can't just pretend this is a normal room,' said German artist Carsten Hoeller, who built the huge slide there in 2006 as part of a series sponsored by Unilever. As with the slide, most works invite the public to participate in a fun way. This is also the case with Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project, which incorporates a mock sun, and Miroslaw Balka's huge walk-in box in which there's nothing but darkness.
In October it will be Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's turn. It will represent the first time the Tate Modern has looked eastward - toward China. Thus far, the turbine hall has exhibited only western artists.
The Tate Modern's expansion plans call for a huge pyramid-resembling extension. The power station's oil tanks also are to be rebuilt. But for now even the most successful institutions are plagued by financial problems.
The Tate Modern 2 is supposed to be finished in time for the London summer Olympics in 2012. Of the 215 million pounds (310 million dollars) needed, only 75 million pounds has been raised thus far. Whether the project will be entirely finished by 2012 is unknown. But the oil tanks in the lower level are expected to be done.
'We're certainly going to have those tanks open in time for the Olympics in 2012,' Serota said. 'The building will follow on from that and gradually emerge over the next two or three years, depending on how we get on with our fundraising.'
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