Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and joining me today for a special podcast from London is Gregor Muir, the director of collection, International Art at Tate Modern.
Gregor Muir: Hello Charlotte. Good to be here.
Charlotte Burns: Good to be here on this rainy day. I thought today we could talk a little bit about your new job, which isn’t that new anymore. When you were going into this job, what was your elevator pitch?
Gregor Muir: I really wanted to add to the legacy of my predecessor, Frances Morris, who went on to become director of Tate Modern. She had established a collection that was all the more interesting for being global, really waving a very large flag for women artists and for being inclusive in general.
One of the most important things about Tate is its capacity to talk to the world and to be able to bring in works from a wide range of media—from a global perspective—into our local realm. That’s what makes Tate a very important example of what a museum can do in terms of its reaching out the world.
Charlotte Burns : Thinking about internationalism, a lot of the patrons have been non-doms—people from beyond these shores. With Brexit, do you think that’s going to get tougher?
Gregor Muir: There’s a very real concern about the implications of Brexit. It’s something that people feel and are at times fearful of. There have been some noticeable, immediate implications given the drop in sterling that’s resulted in most things becoming expensive.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Gregor Muir: It’s a concern at a near spiritual level for many, because it’s seen as hostile. It’s seen as a fear-based culture that has evolved around nationalism and ultimately hinging on the fears emanating from what’s perceived to be a loss of control to govern, to manage borders, et cetera.
In the general mindset, Brexit sits uncomfortably, I feel. It’s clearly, as it were, the will of the people, but at the same time everyone is very eager to know how is this going to impact on the way we work, and behave, and how we continue to welcome people. I think the mayor of London’s message—of welcoming people to London—that’s a very important message to put out there.
At times like this, the role of Tate as an international museum, as a welcoming, global, outward-facing museum, is absolutely essential. It’s important to have a message like that coming from an organization like Tate at this time. Absolutely waves a flag for good things, I feel.
Charlotte Burns: I was reading a profile of Nicholas Serota—who recently stepped down from Tate—talking about the impact he’d had on London’s cultural scene, and also this idea that British people have been somewhat hostile to contemporary culture. He had pioneered the way and made people much more embracing of the contemporary and of the new. The profile concluded with Nick saying you have to keep up the progress, you have to keep pushing it forward, and we’re entering a new period of doubting the new, and nostalgia, and all of these more backwards-looking things.
Gregor Muir: Nick Serota has been a massive driver of the push to see a wider, more positive reception of recent art production.
To some extent, dare I say, YBAs [Young British Artists] helped that. They brought art into, absolutely, the public mainstream their own brand of art, for better or worse. And I think they actually have made their mark in such a way that now art is discussed totally differently in this country. Contemporary art is really, I think, in a friendlier place with people. They’re okay, they don’t feel intimidated to talk to it or to complain about it.
The change for me was most marked when—I remember a London black taxi. I was going to go and have dinner with Carl Andre, and I was excited by this. I’m talking about 10 years ago now. I mentioned this to the driver: “You’ll never guess who I’m going to have dinner with tonight. I’m going to have dinner with the man who made The Bricks [Equivalent VIII (1966)].”
And The Bricks was this sort of national pariah—this outrage at The Bricks. I remember that distinctly growing up. And I thoughtI’m going to hear a typically snarly reply from my cab driver. He kind of thought about, and then he just said: “I think that particular work was quite mathematical, wasn’t it?”
Actually, yes—you just stopped getting those responses of negativity, of hate towards contemporary art. It began to change. It’s going to be an interesting journey to see how it’s taken forward, both in the regions, which is proving to be a great success story here—[the Hepworth] Wakefield, Turner Contemporary, all of the number of regional galleries and the new extension at Tate St Ives—these are really amazing projects, and they are really proving their worth. And I’ve seen it firsthand, it really changes the feel and the whole outlook of a town.
The other thing about how we progress is going to be very much based on the feeling of wider uncertainty. I think people really want to deal with the present, but it’s just extremely difficult to get a grasp of where we are now in the broader culture.
In Europe, especially, people see a very changing world. We have been on the receiving of some extremely awful, terrible events recently, and there is a kind of air at times about London which is not pleasant.
Charlotte Burns: Such as the Grenfell Tower.
Gregor Muir: Grenfell Tower is still really affecting people in London as we speak. The recent terrorist attacks, all of this compounds with the uncertainty over Brexit, and it actually spills into the bigger issues in the world right now.
We are in a warlike environment in Europe. I mean, if I go into work now, I’ll cycle over a bridge, which has now got new barriers so nothing can mount the pavements, and I will overhead watch two army Cherokee helicopters—or whatever they are—these enormous things flying overhead, and you just get the sense of a real unease.
I will immediately point to the importance of art and people receiving it, and being part of the discussion around art and experiencing art. It becomes, in my view, more valuable at times like this. It can encapsulate a far more positive message than what we receive in other walks of life, presently.
Europe is in a very interesting place right now, and probably distinct from the American picture, where you have your own confusions and difficulties. But Europe has its own unique strain. And this is landing at a time of huge acceleration in technology and the way in which we communicate and talk to ourselves, the way we transmit imagery, how we receive imagery.
Our faith in things like the news and so on, and issues suddenly as fundamental as trust begin to kick in. It’s an extraordinary period of time. Talk of the Anthropocene is not to be overlooked. This great period of uncertainty, of huge migration, of technological acceleration and of global climate change and so forth is where we are. It’s a very interesting-slash-difficult period for people to be in. It’s all about a form of uncertainty.
Charlotte Burns: And how does that manifest in the art that people are making that you are seeing?
Gregor Muir: I keep trying to reflect on this because I don’t expect artists to just now go off and make work that illustrates that point literally.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Gregor Muir: But I always have a sense of is the power of the every day in the ordinary, in the way that it filters through, comes in through the back door or something. It’s the way in which the artist is in a world in which the every day—and we might refer to as the ordinary—changes. And in relating to or being a product of this period, it might somehow inherently apply itself to what they’re picturing or thinking about.
Some artists choose, rather brilliantly, to not literally picture such influences in change but to address the way in which it maybe does change the way we do things. Consequently, the way we might make things. And how we think about looking at things. The period we’re in now, the kind of post ‘07 period, where we are—
Charlotte Burns: Talk a little bit about ’07.
Gregor Muir: That clearly was an important period, and Tom Friedman has written very well about it recently in a book called Thank You For Being Late, which is the idea that we forget what a technological boom period ’07 was. Take one thing: the commercial distribution of the iPhone, or the global expansion of Facebook and Twitter.
It all adds up to a very different way of engaging with digital technologies. That’s going to be very important background noise for the art of our time moving forward.
But I don’t expect people to have to work with iPhones to tell me about them. I think they’ll pick it up through ways in which these things embed themselves in our everyday lives.
Charlotte Burns: This idea that the conditions that people are in at any given point impacts the art that’s being made. And, you know, in the 1990s it was the emergence in London of the Young British Artists—work that directly speaks to the economic strife of that period of time. And then if you look at the 2000s as we head into the boom, there is art that speaks directly to the excess of that time as well.
To some extent, movements—Arte Povera—they were formed by what was going on in Italy at the time and other parts of Europe. So, I’m kind of curious, are we likely to see a movement coming out? Are those movements still national?
Gregor Muir: At this rate, as we seem at times we go backward, there could be national movements again. Who knows.
Charlotte Burns: How do you square being a director of collections for the international side of things in a period of increasing nationalism? I mean, when Frances Morris was growing the collection, it feels like we were in a slightly different era then of being more expansive.
Gregor Muir: Well I think one of the main key features of 20th century art has been the story around trans-nationalism. The story of artists moving across the world. Of us being in contact with other artists from other points in the world. So, there is clearly an exchange that artists seek with each other. You can’t help but notice that artists aren’t necessarily in the business of closing down the borders. It’s they who wish to exchange and take from the world around them, in interesting ways, that can’t be achieved necessarily easily through a kind of sense of closure.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Gregor Muir: That’s why it’s very important at this point in time that we continue this path of looking at artists from across the world and looking at Modern canons—which really did apply across other continents—and understanding where they come from. If we talk about performance coming from Japan from the ’50s, you begin to see that there is really a lot of mapping still to do and this mapping points to a process, which is really almost exact opposite of nationalism in some respects.
Charlotte Burns: Because?
Gregor Muir: At the end of the day, artists seek exchanges. Certainly in the post-war period, you see how impossible it would be to talk about art—contemporary art specifically—without the sense of an internationalism and a trans-nationalism.
Charlotte Burns: The question I have for you is the extent to which the focus on looking backwards excludes the new. How do you reconcile that?
Gregor Muir: This sense of revisionism is occurring at time when I think people are rightly of the view that maybe the path that could really be interesting to the present wasn’t properly looked at.
The key thing to achieve is a sense of relevance. A sense of this being essential and urgent even in the present day, even though the works are 50 years old. That goes through a lot of the way people have been looking at certain artists and certain territories, but also art forms.
So, is it also the case that we’re now starting to see interest in artists working in fabrics and fibers in ways which were craft related? In ways that might reorganize our thinking perhaps about indigeneity and artists working with forms which are not associated with high art forms, are not located in the place of predominantly white male Western canon.
There’s a moment where in the ‘70s especially you see an explosion of interdisciplinary practice occurring at many levels and in many media. And it still feels like there is a long way to go in how you place those and how you begin to reassess other things through a more detailed understanding of what was achieved in those periods.
It wasn’t that long ago that New York overlooked West Coast artists. But imagine if you’re a Middle Eastern artist of that era, or you’re an artist working in cultures which are repressive.
If we tend to move away from East/West Coastal American perspectives, you see the need to really look far and wide at areas of production which are really only just being discussed now.
Charlotte Burns: Where are you focusing?
Gregor Muir: We focus through our various acquisition committees very much around the world to the point where we even are helped by colleagues at MCA Sydney that we are building a collection with them of Australian artists’ works.
Charlotte Burns: You’re going to share that with them?
Gregor Muir: We do.
Charlotte Burns: How does that work?
Gregor Muir: We already have acquired works by a number of artists based in Australia and that is all achieved through research and discussion with our colleagues in Sydney. And it’s been an amazing process actually and it’s incredible discussions taking place in Australia in relation to the inclusion of indigenous artworks. And they are actually, in my view, very pioneering.
I’ve found on a recent trip a kind of excitement about what they’re doing. So, in a sense, they’re brokering this new language that may occur at the point at which you allow certain things in. Which, again, goes to inclusion. Which would again talk about artists who aren’t just necessarily coming from a certain position. Could be one of privilege, could be one of just being in that area where artists have traditionally been seen to come from.
Globally you begin to see a sense of focusing in on those areas where artists have been generally overlooked and who haven’t come through systems like the American market system.
Also there is that sense of greater diversification of practice and the point at which we begin to acknowledge where we find very interesting artists working in very different ways.
The market’s become an incredibly effective mechanism communicating and empowering itself and presenting its power to everyone. But that’s one story, and I do feel that there is a kind of need to put that somewhere in a box, perhaps, where it can now be seen as there. My time is better spent over here.
The art ecosystem I think is probably very fragile, and there’s a sense of looking at artists who need support because they’re making great work and they are simply working in ways which don’t leap out as yet colonized by the market.
But we are market-native. We can’t forget that. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I’m somehow outside of it. I don’t think artists do that either, and I don’t think all artists necessarily want to shun the market. I don’t want to project onto them some kind of theory of my own. I think they probably need it to support themselves and to continue in a way that enthuses them and inspires them. Maybe some of that might have a connection to sustainability.
What I would like to do is look at areas of collecting, which are just not going to the obvious watering holes.
Charlotte Burns: That makes sense—being more nimble in one’s approach to what is interesting is probably a better story.
Gregor Muir: Exactly. There is a point at which we begin to let go and we begin to start to look at not just the same practices, but elsewhere in the world. Actually maybe we start to scratch the surface of very different types of practice beyond the orthodox forms of painting, sculpture, even video and photography, but even beyond that. Who’s doing the interesting work now? Who’s challenging that? Who’s out in the world making things which are conveying truly interesting thoughts?
The key thing there is to begin to understand the way in which artistic practice is more diffuse.
Charlotte Burns: Well, it was always probably diffusive, it’s just that the straight line that we carved out from Paris to New York, we’re now looking back and realizing that there were, you know, permutations of art making going on everywhere. Perhaps in bringing that recognition into the museum, it changes the way we look at the present.
Gregor Muir: But that’s the beginning of that path. I think that’s exactly right, but the beginning. What about practices that might really push the edge of inclusion? There’s a difference between being overlooked and never being considered before.
Charlotte Burns: Also, what I wanted to talk to you about is London. You’re so associated, in my mind, with London. You founded the Lux Gallery in 1997. Did you co-found that or found that?
Gregor Muir: Well, I worked with, believe it or not, a fairly unconventional developer, given he played the violin and made sculpture in his studio while buying property around him. He was a very interesting man and he bought a lot of Hoxton Square and turned to me one day and said: “Would you like to run a gallery there?”
I think I was fairly resistant at first, and then I kind of liked the idea. We opened in a building which was run by what was called London Electronic Arts and London Film-Makers Co-op, these kind of old video film co-operatives that then kind of coagulated into this project called Lux.
Charlotte Burns: And when we talk about video art, you went on to become the Kramlich curator at Tate. Do you still feel that passion for video film art?
Gregor Muir: I do. I mean, yes, I do. In 1997, film and video was still in a strange place. It was very popular amongst artists who were revisiting it, really, because there’d been real waves of video practice. You’ve got Nauman and Richard Serra and all those people sorta borrowing the old Sony massive machines and putting them in their studio over a weekend, type of thing.
There was certain video production, at that time, that was superseded in the 90s by video installation. People realized they could do these incredible things by re-editing existing films. There was a lot of appropriation, and sampling and that led to a sort of a re-visioning on the moving image project, leading to people like Steve McQueen, who really knew the nuts and bolts of filmic convention and so on. There was a great deal of discourse around it.
Having said that, it still was not obvious, certainly not to the market, what this thing was. The common question I faced at Tate in that period was, “How do you buy this? Is it worth investing in?”
It was very odd because, at times, it wasn’t necessarily easy to qualify that. It was really about getting over the stigma and the near indifference that people may have had toward it and making people understand that it was a now important part of the overall picture.
We were acquiring a number of works at that time which I think would be odd not to have in a museum. I remember we bought very cheaply things like Mark Leckey‘s Fiorucci Made Me Hard Core (1999), Christian Marclay‘s Video Quartet (2002). Works of that ilk have a real place in museum collections. They offer our audiences quite a lot.
Charlotte Burns: I feel like video has always had a problem in terms of display.
Gregor Muir: Well, that’s shifted. If we look at film and video of the late ‘90s and throughout much of the early part of 2000, I could watch film and video for hours and I did. The reason I mention that is because I find it very hard to do that now.
Charlotte Burns: Why do you find it hard now?
Gregor Muir: I think that space is being pressured by other media and other forms of moving image presentation. Since the Blackberry came along, I’ve found my concentration span, for a great many things, has been pressured.
The platforms of moving image display are beginning to change. You look at augmented reality works, virtually reality works, at works which you can carry in your pocket, on your phone.
People sometimes overlook how moving image is always changing. If you go to the earliest video art, it was always on a monitor and it was received in a way like television and that has changed immeasurably.
Charlotte Burns: You also worked at Hauser & Wirth. You were the London director of the gallery for several years, 2004 to 2011. You were also my boss. So, you’ve put your time into the commercial world, as well. What did you learn from that?
Gregor Muir: I put myself into the commercial world in fairly uncommercial way, it must be said, because I came from Tate to Hauser & Wirth at a point at which I very much liked their roster of artists, and there were many there that I wanted to work with and, in some cases, had worked with previously.
It was a probably naïve move on many levels, but it brought me into contact with a way of working that was very different. I had access to space and to funds to deliver shows at a pace and with a level of ambition that wasn’t necessarily available to me before.
So, I enjoyed that immensely and I think that was probably best summed up by a point when we took over 21,000 square foot space in the East End of London called Coppermill, which I think gave Londoners a lot.
Charlotte Burns: So, the Paul McCarthy exhibition?
Gregor Muir: It started with—Paul McCarthy was actually a Whitechapel presentation, but then we took it on thereafter and ended up doing major Kippenberger show. Christoph Büchel dug the whole thing up and nearly closed down some of the local rail lines, as a result. That was quite a memorable project.
Dieter Roth, for instance—we put on probably the kind of show that you couldn’t stage anywhere else. Partly because we were able to get around certain matters that would concern museums greatly, to the point were they may not commit. We were able to do these kind of really truly explosive shows. They were big exhibitions that really, to my mind, became a measure of what we were trying to achieve. There was a commercial basis to this, clearly, but it was exciting to work on the shows.
Charlotte Burns: It was 2004, so we’re heading up into the boom then. So, we went up and up and up for several years after that. So, those things came in tandem, too.
Gregor Muir: They did. I mean, I actually like to pretend that if we could bring out the sort of sales charts since I joined, I would like to think it had gone up exponentially and that was, of course, a result of myself arriving on the scene.
But it was interesting because, yes, it was something I had seen prior to going to Hauser & Wirth: the uplift in prices of contemporary artworks which was going on actually quietly at first—maybe not for people engaged in the markets in New York, but there wasn’t that scene around contemporary art.
It was the real beginnings of something. For instance, the Cattelan Pope [La Nona Ora (1999)], when that went to auction and sold for several millions. That was like a little, small bomb going off because, in a way, people didn’t even think recent contemporary art had the ability to attract that kind of interest.
Charlotte Burns: Because the largest market had been Impressionist and Modern. This is when the shift started happening.
Gregor Muir: Yes. It was that moment when the tide mark was changing. People were moving into works that had been produced within a matter of years and were going into the market and beginning to sell for very high prices. I mean, there was always the Jeff Koons project sort of going through all of this. But it was the other artists around that that were less—people who were perceived to be less commercially minded suddenly attracting high prices in the market and there was, yes, a massive uplift.
There was a sense of a distinct change in the way things may have to work. Europe wasn’t working in the same way as America at a museum level. It wasn’t a patron-led kind of operation. It was an old school church and state model. It didn’t see itself as needing to perhaps catch the wave and what it might have to do to catch it.
And that was where things were getting very interesting. It’s one of those things that really changed the landscape for museums, for artists, for everyone.
Budgets for collecting art at any museum are never going to be that high. So, it’s just how you then put together collections in a period of time when works are becoming very quickly inaccessible.
Charlotte Burns: How do you deal with that now?
Gregor Muir: Well, you fundraise. You have to work to put together the right conditions in order to acquire expensive works, which could be seeking donors. It could be seeking support from various companies or people running trusts and foundations who are able to help. But on the whole it’s the seeking of gifts, which is a very key part of this. So, I have to say artists are generous and have been increasingly so, as have estates and foundations. And we are in an area now, where we are very grateful to those people who help bring the work in.
Charlotte Burns: Do you think that we’re moving into a period of different structure in terms of the governments approach to culture? We’ve been seeing cuts over the years, and people I’ve spoken to in London have said that there needs to be more openness to a kind of public/private model.
Gregor Muir: I think people generally have been encouraged to look a public/private, and there’s a feeling that perhaps 2008 maybe shifted the emphasis. Certainly, since ’08 it’s unusual to see the amount of public bailouts of private institutions.
Charlotte Burns: What do you mean?
Gregor Muir: I think there was a sense of private sector feeling that it was in its gift to support the public sector, perhaps built on the fact it felt well endowed in some way. It felt that it was a kind of a slight naivety in that approach, because the assumption was the money is over here and it needs to come over there. And I think that the public/private partnership theories have been perhaps shaken by that inability for that pact to be that clear any longer. I mean, now the public sectors had to bring in entire banks. It’s had to begin to perhaps negotiate how it deals with the private sector in distress.
Charlotte Burns: You’re talking about broader economic—
Gregor Muir: Yes, exactly, and I think that’s probably what filters in to the complicated relationships now between public and private. So, where we go now in terms of private individual support of museums: that’s absolutely clear and key and something that many institutions in Europe—certainly in the UK—are pursuing as hard as they can. People will work that out in due course.
I think, to the point of economic circumstance, delivering a certain kind of art form. I guess I made that a point of a book that I wrote once, which was the economic turmoil at the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s played into the hands of a group of artists. And, vice-versa: that there was a point at which the post-industrial decline of the East End, for instance, laid the groundwork for artists to go there and to have access to space that enabled them to produce and to present their work really incredibly effectively, using new means of communication then, which was print.
To see how that connected back to a group of artists who were engaged in a form of independent programming and curating and promotion was exciting. It was odd because, when ’08 came, I got two or three calls from journalists asking me: “Oh, you must be really happy about the fact that we’re in the deepest recession since the late ’20s.” And I didn’t quite understand what they meant, but what they were talking about was that I must have sat there waiting for the next round of artists to come through. And, I said then, as I would say now, that the economic circumstances are vastly different now. It’s not the same matrix. It’s the different recipe we have at the moment, which has in fact seen space at an incredible premium in this city, as it is in many other—
Charlotte Burns: Metropolises.
Gregor Muir: —top tier cities. And, of course, the end result is—in fact you don’t get any kind of boom, as it were, in that old-fashioned sense because actually, artists could barely afford to live here. So, how do they respond to that? How do they work through this period?
Charlotte Burns: Yes, and where.
Gregor Muir: And where. And, where does the now very sophisticated gallery and collecting that works go? I do recall a time when certain dealers would hand you cracked glass slides in a brown paper bag in a pub, as a kind of form of cultural exchange. Whereas now, it’s in an email and most galleries I know probably do a huge amount of electronic sales.
Charlotte Burns: You were the former executive director of London’s ICA from 2009 to 2016.
Gregor Muir: Oh, yes.
Charlotte Burns: Because, I didn’t mention that.
Gregor Muir: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: And, essentially saved the institution from—
Gregor Muir: I don’t know what I did, but all I know is that it was very, very close to not being—
Charlotte Burns: To bankruptcy.
Gregor Muir: —ICA on the mail anymore, and I hope to have left it in a better place. But, that was an extraordinary project. The ICA was always a very important thing in my life.
It is a really brilliant place, and it really deserves a future. It’s still perhaps one of the only places where artists can truly be with each other and watch a much more live and living form of art occur in ways you just don’t get elsewhere.
The ICA’s got a good bar. That makes a difference when you’ve just been to a talk, and you spill out afterwards, and then you’re bumping into people who are just coming out of a performance. There’s just something really great about that mix. It’s probably quite old school, but it’s actually very important.
Charlotte Burns: Human contact, and—
Gregor Muir: Well, yes. In all of this, the element of human contact—which is why I got into art and why I was interested in it—we need to just be a little mindful, I suspect, about…Some of us, certainly in my generation, it’s like: how do we sit within it now as it goes through the phase that it’s been through—that it will probably continue to be through—where it is clearly much more market orientated, commercially orientated. Venice, as an example, was not this exercise that it is now when I first went to my first one, which was in ’93.
Commercial interest didn’t hold sway in the way that it does now, and you went because curators were doing projects that were deemed to be really important, making exhibitions that were statements, that were important because you had one shot to see those artists assembled in one place.
And annoyingly, in 1993, I think one of the first things I saw in Venice was Hans Haacke’s German Pavilion smashed up, with those huge concrete floor plates jutting out in angles and you stood on one precariously as it wobbled and made this amazing sound. And it’s just an odd one to have walked into as your first experience of Venice, and many people cite that as one of the best Venice displays ever and I tend to agree. So, you know, it’s been a struggle to keep up since then, but I think it’s—
Charlotte Burns: You peaked early.
Gregor Muir: Yes. Now it’s somewhat like everything else: fractured, slightly difficult to read, various interests all piled into one place.
Charlotte Burns: This has been fascinating. Thank you so much for joining me, Gregor. It’s always a pleasure.
Gregor Muir: Thank you very much, Charlotte.