in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask

#51 Sir Nicholas Serota: “We all want to know what it means to be alive today”


Host Charlotte Burns and Sir Nicholas Serota

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

The man credited with reinventing the museum and changing British culture, Sir Nicholas Serota joins us for a special extended episode of In Other Words.

Now Chair of Arts Council England, Serota was the director of Tate for 28 years. More than anybody else, he helped shift attitudes in Britain, making the country more comfortable with contemporary art while he oversaw the growth of Tate both physically and in terms of reputation and ambition. Once a small institution, Tate became a phenomenon and the best attended museum of Modern art in the world.

Serota began his career in the 1980s during a period in which the country’s politics were isolationist and there was a “certain paranoia about continental Europe and artists from Europe”. By the early 2000s, the country had become more international and open, and the arts were flourishing as London established itself as a creative and economic hub.

Recorded on the day of a historic defeat in the government’s “meaningful vote” on Brexit, Serota discusses the current climate with our host Charlotte Burns: “Some things don’t change. And human nature is one of those. People feel challenged by difference.”

While he himself is “always regarded as being right in the center of the establishment… I still have a sense of what it means to be an outsider,” Serota says. “I will continue to believe that international exchange of all kinds is valuable.”

He discusses running one of the world’s largest museums—including why he never left for an American museum—and talks about the challenges facing institutional leaders today: “Whatever the difficulties were in the late ‘80s, it’s become even more difficult to run these big institutions now than it was then.”

For this, and much more, tune in now.

Click here for the full transcript

Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.

I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today I’m joined by Sir Nicholas Serota, who was the director of Tate for 28 years, between 1988 and 2017, and is now Chair of Arts Council England.


I’m always regarded as being right in the center of the establishment, but I still have a sense of what it means to be an outsider.”

More than anybody else, Nicholas Serota has been responsible for changing culture both in Britain and beyond. In the words of Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum: “Over the past 30 years, Nick has been by far the most important player in making the English comfortable with contemporary art—really engaged with it and eager to see it.”

Serota oversaw the growth of Tate both physically and also in terms of reputation and ambition. The Tate went from being a small museum to a global phenomenon and is the best attended museum of Modern art in the world.

Before we get into today’s episode, just a reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at 

And now, onto today’s show. 



Sir Nicholas Serota

chair of Arts Council England

Nicholas Serota is Chair of Arts Council England and a member of the Board of the BBC.  He was Director of Tate from 1988 to 2017.  During this period Tate opened Tate St Ives (1993) and Tate Modern (2000 and extension 2016), redefining the Millbank building as Tate Britain (2000).  Tate also broadened its field of interest to include twentieth-century photography, film, performance and occasionally architecture, as well as collecting from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.  The national role of the Gallery was also developed with the creation of the Plus Tate network of 35 institutions across the UK and Northern Ireland.

Between 1976 and 1988 he was Director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery where he curated numerous exhibitions including Robert Ryman, Carl Andre, Gerhard Richter, Eva Hesse, Max Beckmann: The Triptychs, Anselm Kiefer, Philip Guston, Georg Baselitz, Bruce Nauman.  In recent years he has curated or co-curated exhibitions of Donald Judd, Howard Hodgkin Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter, and Matisse: The Cut-Outs.

Charlotte Burns

executive editor of In Other Words

Charlotte Burns is the editor of In Other Words, our weekly newsletters and podcasts. She was previously the US news and market editor for The Art Newspaper, as well as a regular correspondent for publications such as the Guardian and Monocle. Previously, she worked with the London dealer Anthony d’Offay on special projects. For several years, she was a consultant at the cultural communications agency, Bolton & Quinn. She also worked at Hauser & Wirth in London.

Burns received a Masters degree (with Merit) from the Courtauld Institute in Art and Cultural Politics in Germany, 1890-1945, as well as a first-class B.A. honors degree in English and History of Art from Birmingham University. She moved to New York in 2010.

The live record

Behind the Scenes with Sir Nicholas Serota and Charlotte Burns

4 Images

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