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

Host Charlotte Burns and Sir Nicholas Serota

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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.

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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 artagencypartners.com. 

And now, onto today’s show. 

Charlotte Burns: Nick, thank you for joining me today. 

Sir Nicholas Serota: Very good to be here, and great to be part of this program.

Charlotte Burns: I was just introducing you and all the ways in which you have changed the reception of contemporary art in the UK. The question I wanted to ask you, to sort of contradict myself, was the extent to which you think things really have changed. 

By this I’m referring specifically to something you said in a Guardian article a couple of years ago, in an interview with Charlotte Higgins, where you talked about the credibility that was increasingly being replaced by a kind of doubt, and that the revolution could be reversed, essentially.

Where do you think we are now?

Sir Nicholas Serota: I think there has been a sea change in people’s attitude in this country to contemporary art.  We see that obviously in terms of the numbers of visitors to institutions, not just in London but across the country. 

There’s an appetite and a willingness to explore that I think didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago. Contemporary art at that moment felt as though it was very much in a corner, rather defending that corner, and was very much a minority interest.

Now, I’m not saying it’s a majority interest now, contemporary art, but I think that there’s a very sizeable audience. 

Charlotte Burns: In 2000, you gave a lecture in which you said: “In spite of this much greater public interest in all aspects of visual culture, the challenge posed by contemporary art has not totally evaporated.”

And you read out some of the headlines for the most recent year’s Turner Prize. Your favorite was from the Daily Mail: “For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilizing forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all.”

You went on in this lecture to say: “Are these papers speaking the minds of their readers? I have no delusions. People may be attracted by the spectacle of new buildings, they may enjoy the social experience of visiting a museum, taking in the view, an espresso or a glass of wine, purchasing a book or an artist-designed t-shirt. Many are delighted to praise the museum but remain deeply suspicious of the content.”

Do you still think that, almost 20 years on?

Sir Nicholas Serota: Well, I think the best artists challenge us to think in new ways. And if everything was palatable the moment it arrived on public view, it wouldn’t be doing its job.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Sir Nicholas Serota: The great thing about an institution like Tate Modern is it gives us an opportunity to see the world in a different way.

I mean, that’s a cliché isn’t it, on one level—but it’s certainly true that artists do see the world in a different way, and I think it’s important that artists should have an opportunity to share that different view with the rest of the world. Just as writers do, just as dramatists do, playwrights.

And I think visual artists make comment on the world you can see, for instance with “The Fourth Plinth” projects which take place in Trafalgar Square every year—

Charlotte Burns: For people outside of the UK who aren’t so familiar with that project, it’s a temporary plinth in Trafalgar Square, which is one of the most visited tourist areas of London, sitting just outside the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. The plinth has an annual commission of contemporary art—

Sir Nicholas Serota: It’s currently occupied by a piece by Michael Rakowitz, which is a reconstruction of a work that was damaged—destroyed, effectively—by ISIS. And it’s a great reminder of the febrile times in which we live, and the most difficult times in which we live, but it also tells you something about the enduring power of art and the importance of maintaining the vestiges of past civilizations. But also, something about what those civilizations can teach us.

Charlotte Burns: Right. And you began your academic career reading economics at Christ’s College, Cambridge, before switching to history of art. You went on to the Courtauld where you did a Master’s dissertation on Turner. Why did you switch from economics?

Sir Nicholas Serota: Well, I was a perfectly good economist. But I knew that I was not going to be either an academic economist nor did I want to be an economist, pure and simple, for the rest of my life. I had this growing interest in the arts and I had a special interest in the visual arts, and I found myself going to more and more exhibitions.

There was an opportunity in Cambridge to switch from one subject to another. It’s rather rare in most universities that you can do it. As it happened, the history of art course at Cambridge was a very small course. There were only 20 or 25 students in each year, and it was brilliantly taught by Michael Jaffé. I thought I would spend two years learning about something that might stay with me for the rest of my life, even if I didn’t become an art historian.

It turned out that it did stay with me for the rest of my life.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: Yes, rather got a grip! 

Sir Nicholas Serota: It got a grip, it got a grip.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: You were also influenced by Kettle’s Yard, weren’t you, this idea of a life with artists.

Sir Nicholas Serota: Well, Kettle’s Yard was a remarkable collection made by an individual, Jim Ede, who knew artists in England in the late ‘20s and through into the ‘30s and ‘40s. In that period, he had a small amount of money and made a collection.

When he retired, he returned to Cambridge. He took on this pair of cottages in the center of Cambridge and he installed his collection. And he opened it every afternoon for undergraduates. 

What was powerful about it was, first of all, his personal connection with those artists: the fact that he then bought work from them, or was given work by them, and he installed it in a very beautiful aesthetic fashion: mixing some ceramics, but also wonderful small works of art, in a very intimate fashion. He also collected stones and pebbles and arranged them in beautiful patterns and shapes.

So, it was very much a mid-20th century aesthetic, and it was compelling. He was prepared to, indeed even at that point, lend you works of art to hang in your room in college. 

Charlotte Burns: Wow, so generous.

Sir Nicholas Serota: So, I had a Gaudier-Brzeska drawing in my room for three months.

Charlotte Burns: So you really did live with art.

Sir Nicholas Serota: But I think what it really taught me was that the best collectors are those who collect the art of their own time. I say “best”, but a really exciting way of learning about art is to go to exhibitions, to collect, to become friends with artists. And it encouraged me to think more about being involved with contemporary art rather than simply the historic.

Charlotte Burns: So, you went on from there. You started at the Arts Council, you would go on to become the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford where you staged an early exhibition of work by Joseph Beuys in the 1970s. 

You continued to promote contemporary art while director of the Whitechapel Gallery, staging exhibitions including an exhibition that took place at the Royal Academy, “The New Spirit in Painting”, which you co-organized with Norman Rosenthal and Christos Joachimides.

Lots of people thought you were out to destroy British culture at this time. You were bringing in a German artist at a time when the British press and audiences weren’t necessarily receptive to that.

There was a lot of criticism from certain critics who felt that you were abandoning traditional British art. How did you have the sense of self, and faith in what you were doing to weather those storms?

Sir Nicholas Serota: So, both at Oxford and at the Whitechapel I had a very strong sense that the British art scene was rather isolated.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Sir Nicholas Serota: What I felt more than anything was that British artists and British audiences really needed to see some of the best work that was being made in continental Europe and possibly in America. That was why, for instance, we made the Joseph Beuys at Oxford which was a show made with Caroline Tisdall

Charlotte Burns: And how had you encountered that work?

Sir Nicholas Serota: I had seen Beuys’s work in exhibitions in Germany. There had been no major show of Beuys’s work in the United Kingdom at that point. He had done one or two events or actions. But he hadn’t made work here. He hadn’t shown in commercial galleries.

There was an opportunity to do an exhibition in Oxford devoted to his drawing, which was a relatively inexpensive way of presenting his work, but also presenting the whole panorama of his work from the mid ‘40s right through to the mid ‘70s.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Sir Nicholas Serota: So that felt like a really good introduction. Joseph himself brought the drawings in a portfolio in his Bentley from Dusseldorf.

[Laughter]

And we framed all the drawings in Oxford. Sandy Nairne, Mark Francis, Lewis Biggs, who were all students at Oxford at that time, came and helped us do so.

 [Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: Anthony d’Offay had seen this exhibition of Beuys’s work and Anthony would later go on to represent Beuys. It compelled him; it moved him in a slightly different direction too, because around that time he’d been looking at Bloomsbury artists, things like that. 

So, it’s interesting the ways in which contemporary art impacts other people—

Sir Nicholas Serota: Well, one of the more extraordinary things one discovers, of course, is that you make an exhibition because you have a conviction about an artist. You never really know who sees that exhibition or what impact it has.

Charlotte Burns: Mmm-hmm.

Sir Nicholas Serota: So, you’ve just told a story about Anthony seeing the Beuys exhibition. There are innumerable artists who saw exhibitions at the Whitechapel that were clearly very important for them. I only discovered that, you know, 20 or 30 years later.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Sir Nicholas Serota: Artists like Tacita Dean, I know now, came up from Falmouth where she was a student, saw a Twombly show at the Whitechapel in 1987. She was there with her class from Falmouth and they were on a visit to London going to a number of galleries and they arrived first at the Whitechapel. Everyone else went on to see other shows, but she was so taken with the Twombly show that she stayed for the whole day looking at it.

Charlotte Burns: Wow.

Sir Nicholas Serota: So, you never know.

Charlotte Burns: You never know the ripple effects. 

I was asking you how you kept your fortitude in that period of being criticized by the press and the establishment. Various people were not on board with your agenda.

Sir Nicholas Serota: Well, it’s certainly true that when it was announced that I was appointed to be director of the Tate, there was quite a lot of press comment suggesting that the only art I’d chosen at the Whitechapel was German art. That tells you a lot about the state of Britain in the ‘80s. Probably tells you a little bit about the state of Britain in 2019.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Sir Nicholas Serota: A certain paranoia about continental Europe and artists from Europe.

One of the ways in which I kept my sanity while I was at the Whitechapel was to spend a lot of time with artists, in studios, because I had a lot of support from artists in terms of what we were showing.

But the other way I found was that I would, every couple of weeks, try and go to Europe and renew my contacts with museum people and artists there.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Sir Nicholas Serota: It gave me a certain perspective and allowed me to… I mean it’s interesting that there were vehicles, I don’t want to overplay this, but there were organizations that were supporting contemporary art, for instance, in the United Kingdom at that time. The Contemporary Art Society

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Sir Nicholas Serota: —they regularly invited museum people to serve on their panels, to serve on their selection committees. Same would be true of the Arts Council. They would invite museum people to serve as curators and to select work for their collections.

I was never invited to do that by the Arts Council or the Contemporary Art Society. I was regarded as not having an interest, but of course, I did.

Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting. Did you feel shunned by that? Did you mind not being invited?

Sir Nicholas Serota: Well, I didn’t mind not being invited because I had plenty to do—

 [Laughter]

I had plenty to preoccupy me. But in a way it was just an indication of the relative insularity of the British art world during that period. And I think that did change quite significantly in the late ‘80’s and through into the ‘90s, in part, I think, because the Tate was not the only institution that was showing contemporary art from elsewhere in the world—the Whitechapel continued to do a very good program after I left. Modern Art Oxford, as it became known, was doing important shows.

From 2000 onwards, these new galleries that opened across the country—including Turner Contemporary, Nottingham Contemporary, The Hepworth Wakefield—were all active in bringing contemporary art to this country.

And, of course, the whole commercial world changed very dramatically after 2000, with the arrival of international galleries using London as a base for working in continental Europe. 

Charlotte Burns: Yes, it was a very exciting time, I remember it. I was studying at university, and still contemporary art wasn’t something you could even study at university.

Sir Nicholas Serota: No.

Charlotte Burns: But it was around you, and in the papers.

You were asked as a shortlisted applicant for the director role at Tate to submit a seven-year scheme. Yours was entitled “Grasping the Nettle” and it analyzed various areas of Tate’s work and proposed strategies for dealing with various things, including the imminent crisis of government funding being restricted, changing public sector management expectations, and increasing art market prices.

I was reading this in researching for this podcast and thinking—that was 30 years ago, and those crises are still the crises that face museum directors today, these issues of funding, public sector expectations, and the sway of the art market.

In what way had those things developed or shifted in that period?

Sir Nicholas Serota: I think first of all, there’s a much wider recognition on the part of museums that they have to raise money from a range of sources. They have to earn money. They have to seek sponsorship, they have to bring collectors on board who will give works of art or who will support them financially. That wasn’t the case 30 years ago.

I mean clearly, it has become even more difficult for institutions to compete in the market, and the only way you can really compete is by being very close to the artists or close to collectors, or—and—having curators who are at the forefront of understanding and knowledge of what is becoming important in contemporary art, so you buy early.

But no one wants to have a collection only of early works by artists.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Sir Nicholas Serota: You want to be able to represent, whether it’s an established artist like Gerhard Richter or a young up-and-coming artist, you want to represent them in all phases of their career. And that’s a real challenge.

I think whatever the difficulties were in the late ‘80s, it’s become even more difficult to run these big institutions now than it was then.

Charlotte Burns: Some of the key points from your plan that you made in 1988 are still very relevant.

You talked about fundraising and establishing an integrated fundraising and development team, about working closely with living artists, about establishing a sense that Tate served the nation, and making partnerships with regional museums and working with international partners to bring great shows to London.

They’re still things that you’re working on now in your role at the Arts Council, in the sense of thinking regionally and also internationally, in a sense, of being able to hold one’s own as a culture.

How has your thinking on these things changed?  We’re recording this on 15 January, which is the day of the “meaningful vote” for Brexit. We are in uncertain times, and by the time this airs maybe there’ll be more certainty about what’s happening, but that’s not really clear either.

When you started at Tate, you were thinking about looking towards Europe. When Tate Modern opened, you had said you were concerned about dividing British and international art, saying that you were worried about appearing isolationist.

You recently gave a speech on a similar theme, during which you said: “Cultures that cut themselves off may become exquisite like a rare breed of animal, but ultimately they stagnate and are irrelevant to a changing world.”

This isolationist tendency seems more pronounced now than it has been in recent decades. What are your thoughts on that?

Sir Nicholas Serota: Some things don’t change. And human nature is one of those. And people feel challenged by difference. That difference may be the French—if you look at Hogarth’s prints and images of the British and the French in the middle of the 18th century, there was a degree of hostility there which still prevails today, on one level.

But more seriously, I think that we know that the great art and great cultures flourish when there is international exchange. Dürer going to Italy, changed his art at the beginning of the 16th century. Look at Britain and France in the early 19th century and you see Delacroix looking at Constable; Constable was the sensation of the 1824 salon. So, we learn from others, and we learn more, I think, when we encounter different cultures.

My grandparents came to England in the early 20th century—very early 20th century. And that has probably given me a sense of being, to some extent—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.

Going to the Whitechapel, I found myself running a gallery which was located directly opposite a shop that my grandmother had run in the 1950s. I don’t think she was a regular visitor to the Whitechapel and Brian Robinson’s exhibitions. 

[Laughter]

But, I had an understanding of that culture. Be it a culture that, at that point, was being overlaid. It was no longer Jewish immigrants, it was Bangladeshis coming in the mid-70s. So, I think there’s a sense I have of the importance of opening doors and opening avenues of communication that are really fundamental to the health of any society.

Charlotte BurnsWhat impact do you think Brexit will have on British culture and its standing?

Sir Nicholas Serota: Well, I think everyone recognizes that it will have a damaging impact on the economic position of the United Kingdom in the short term. Some people would say not in the long term, those who are in favor of Brexit. But I think many people would be concerned about it even in the long-term.

One of the great gains of the changing attitudes in this country post-2000 was an ability of young people from elsewhere in continental Europe to come and work here. So, when I look at the composition of the staff of the Tate in 2010 compared with 1990, it was much more international. It meant that people with a different kind of educational formation and experience were coming and working in the institution and sharing their knowledge with British audiences—well, international audiences, but especially British audiences—and the institution became stronger as a result.

So I will continue to believe that international exchange of all kinds is valuable.

Charlotte Burns: I heard a rumor that the government at some stage during the Brexit process—this seemingly unending process—had been asking various leaders in the civil service to consider their staffing and the constitution of who was employed to try to make things more English. Did you come under any pressure over the last couple of years from the government to hire English creatives?

Sir Nicholas Serota: Well, there was a moment soon after the referendum where slightly naïve civil servants were asking questions like: “If we wanted to replace international dancers by British dancers, how many years would it take to train them?”

Charlotte Burns: How do you answer that?

Sir Nicholas Serota: Well, it’s an absurd… well, the answer is 10 years. But that’s not exactly the answer that you want to give, because it’s not the result you want to achieve.

Charlotte Burns: No. 

Sir Nicholas Serota: The other response that I would give would be if you confined the Premier League to only players born in England, you would find that the quality of the League diminished quite significantly.

Charlotte Burns: That’s a good answer.

Sir Nicholas Serota: Bit of an understatement.

 [Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: Bit of an understatement, yes, absolutely.

You’re a very strategic thinker. You’ve done a lot to change culture. If Brexit goes forward and England moves in a more nationalist direction, how do you see yourself as able to keep maintaining those bridges, with Europe and the rest of the world, that you created. 

Sir Nicholas Serota: The short answer is, with greater endeavor and with greater difficulty. I mean the answer is that I think that we will need to find ways of counteracting what would be a natural tendency to think only in terms of what’s happening within the British Isles. 

But how long would the British Isles remain the United Kingdom, in those circumstances, is also very much up for debate. Because it’s quite clear that Scotland would think differently about a referendum on independence, post-Brexit. And I think that would be a great loss.

Charlotte Burns: And it would also have implications for shared collections, too. The Artist Rooms collection: you worked with the National Galleries of Scotland, John Leighton at the time, to bring forwards. 

I remember those meetings. I was a lowly note-taker, and it was always incredibly interesting to hear everybody trying to figure out this conundrum of how do you share a collection and how do you fund that? Because the funding system is obviously so different in the UK than in the US.

Things like that, the actual practicalities of a collection that’s split between England and Scotland, that would be changed drastically. Are you and other people in the cultural section preparing for those eventualities or waiting for those bridges to be crossed, if they need to be?

Sir Nicholas Serota: I think in the cultural sector there’s every hope that Scotland and England will continue to work together. But obviously there are already differences that are exposed.

So, the government recently announced an intention to have what they call “A Festival of Britain” in 2022. And already they’re having difficulty identifying an organization that has UK-wide reach that could organize such an event. Partly because the agreement with the Scottish Executive provides for arts matters to be dealt with by the Scottish Executive rather than by the government in Westminster.

So, there are already impediments, and one would simply have to try and work hard to try and overcome them.

I think in the case of Artist Rooms, it was always Anthony’s ambition that it should be a UK-wide project. He had always been impressed by what had happened in Scotland in terms of some of the exhibitions that had taken place there—

Charlotte Burns: He went to university there, as well.

Sir Nicholas Serota: He’d been to university, he’d had a long-standing connection, and therefore wanted this to be a UK-wide phenomenon.

Charlotte Burns: This idea of the regions is something you’re still very much focused on in your role at the Arts Council. This idea of taking art beyond the major metropolitan centers and into the regions. Last year you wrote two articles for the Guardian newspaper that were quite interesting. One was called “The Arts Must Reach More People If They’re to Help Our Divided Society.” And you wrote, in conclusion, to that article: “I am convinced that in years to come there will be an ever-greater recognition of the value and the need for the arts in all our lives.”

You wrote another piece later that year, saying: “The Arts Have a [Leading] Role to Play in Tackling Climate Change”, in which you said that arts and cultural companies could shift precious supplies to make more ethical decisions. 

You wrote that “arts and culture make a vital contribution to the creation of a more inclusive and more confident society. They have the power to delight, educate, stimulate and inspire and—at a time of increasing division and inequality—we need their influence more than ever”.

In real practical terms, how do you decide where to focus in your role at the Arts Council?

Sir Nicholas Serota: The Arts Council is the Arts Council of England, not the Arts Council of London and the regions, which means it has a responsibility to everyone who lives across the country.

I’ve always believed that there should be an opportunity to see great art wherever you live. When I was a student I used to go visit my sister who was studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. I used to go to the Whitworth Art Gallery, and it was a beacon.

In the late ‘60s, it had a brilliant director, Francis Holcroft, who had succeeded another brilliant director called John White. There were great collections there, but also John White, who was a great Renaissance historian who wrote one of the most important books on early 15th century Tuscan art and architecture, had done a major renovation of the building and was also organizing important exhibitions, principally of British artists, but also historic shows. It was a very exciting place to visit.

And it gave me a sense that in Manchester, which at that time was not the Manchester that we see today, you could have a great gallery that was serving a broad public and contributing to discussion about what it means to be alive today.

The purpose of showing contemporary art is partly to give people who have insight an opportunity to share those insights with others. We all read books, we all go to films, we all go to galleries, we listen to music because we all want to know what it means to be alive today. That’s what artists do. And you need that to happen across the country rather than just in selected places that are accessible to a relatively small number of people.

Charlotte Burns: How do you do that? How do you decide where to focus? Obviously, you’ve spent time over the last year and change traveling around England to figure out where to focus, where is deserving of more money.

But you’re doing this in the face of increasing government cuts.

Sir Nicholas Serota: The challenge at the moment is, on the one hand, to preserve the best of what is already there because with local authority funding is being cut so significantly… I was in Derby yesterday, where the local authority has cut its budget for the museums from something like £1.2m a year to around £500,000 a year. 

Charlotte Burns: Wow.

Sir Nicholas Serota: In the course of three years. And that’s because of the pressures that have been brought about by a combination of austerity and also, central government policy.

So, on the one hand you’re trying to preserve what’s there. But you are also trying to add to what’s there. And I think the difficulty for the Arts Council is to try and do both.

The institutions I’ve already mentioned like Turner Contemporary and Margate, or The Hepworth Wakefield, or Nottingham Contemporary were all new foundations as a result of the initiative taken by individuals in those towns or cities. No one would have believed that you could attract 400,000 people a year to an institution in Margate—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Sir Nicholas Serota: —25 years ago. Or similarly in Wakefield or Nottingham. So, there is an appetite and if you give people good things, my belief is that they will come.

So, how do you make those choices? It’s a combination of trying to, as I say, preserve what’s there but also, be strategic about trying to add to the stock of what’s there.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. 

Sir Nicholas Serota: The difficulty for the Arts Council is, on the whole it’s been a body that has responded to initiative from others. So, if you have a part of the country where very little is happening, or there’s very little provision, how do you engender that and how do you act strategically, rather than simply responsively? And that’s a challenge.

Charlotte Burns: Is it a question of empowering people?

Sir Nicholas Serota: Well, it’s a question of making it clear that you would support people who come forward.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. A lot of your work at the Arts Council is tireless and, in a way, thankless. When you took the job there were comments from Dennis Stevenson, the former chair of the Tate board, who said something along the lines of “It’s great for the Arts Council and it’s great for England, but it’s not so great for Nick because he’s going to go around being kicked from door to door.”

It seems to me that that’s tied somewhat to your beliefs in art: you’re civically-minded, you believe that art can change the world, that art can reflect the ways in which we live and change our culture. And you’ve been steadfast in that belief.

You were raised in a political house. Your mother was a committed Labour politician who was named to the House of Lords. And I read that you thought about a career in politics while you were a teenager. You’re quoted as saying something like: “In the moment after 1945, people like my mother saw the chance to change the world.”

And so I wanted to ask you about that—that belief of yours in the civic power of art and your own sense of civic responsibility.

Sir Nicholas Serota: I think that communities are, in the main, richer and happier and more at ease with each other when they find things that they can share, rather than when they live in isolation. I think common endeavor is more valuable than individual endeavor. Though of course, you’ll immediately come back and say, “Artists are individuals”. But I think collectively, we have an opportunity to enrich each other’s lives by sharing those experiences. So I do believe in public libraries and I do believe in public galleries and opportunities for people to hear the best music and the best theater.

And if Dennis said that I have a thankless task, the reward for that thankless task is to be able to go to places and see things, and experience and meet artists. You know, I worked for 30 years or more principally in the visual arts, but I’m now meeting composers and playwrights and performers, and seeing more theater than I had seen in the previous 10 or 15 years.

Sir Nicholas Serota: So, that’s a reward.

 [Laughter]

Personal reward, at least.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, it’s an interesting way of talking about it. 

You have been pursued by major museums in America and I’m assuming elsewhere as well. You were asked, I read, in 1994 by the trustees of MoMA to talk to them about the directorship of the museum and you said no.

I was curious as to why you said no.

Sir Nicholas Serota: I think there are two principal reasons, Charlotte. The first was that I was embarked on a project to transform the Tate. And by 1994 we were well on the way. It was indeed in 1994 that we ran the architectural competition for Tate Modern.

So, I had no need to go abroad to find an exciting project to work on.

Beyond that, I think that museums are rooted in communities. They grow out of communities. They understand the ethos and what motivates individuals within those communities. And I think that I felt that I would be able to do something in London, because I understood the culture and the society, that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do in New York.

I would have had a wonderful time working with that exceptional collection, which is obviously superior to the Tate’s in terms of the 20th-century. I would have probably been involved in making some great exhibitions. 

But, for me, it wouldn’t have had the same meaning and it wouldn’t have had the same result. I would have been effectively another chapter in the story whereas there seemed to be an opportunity here [in London] to create something that would be enduring in a different way. Perhaps even change the nature or the place of the visual arts in our society.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, exactly. You were asked about this by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian and you said that making a great a museum in Chicago would, for you, be something more like “an academic exercise”, whereas doing it in London felt like an opportunity to change society.

Talking about changing society—

[Laughter]

—the dealer Larry Gagosian described you as something of a master strategist and said, “Nick really caught the wave. He saw the possibilities, the wealth coming in, and he kind of harnessed that. A lot of other people were involved, but to me it really looks like the house that Nick built.” He said this in a [The] New Yorker profile that came out in 2017.

He was referring, of course, to Tate Modern and the expansion of the position of contemporary art in England—and the increasing repositioning of London—as an international hub, and the public appetite for it.

The thing that Gagosian says about the wealth coming in, I wanted to talk to you about that, because we’ve discussed the public side of it, which is the shortfalls that have been getting increasingly sharp over the decades. 

Another quote from Dennis Stevenson, who told The New Yorker in the same article that in the beginning you weren’t naturally good at asking for money but you’d grown much better at it. There was a little bit of controversy when the Tate extension was renamed “The Blavatnik Building” after a single donor gave a large amount, thought to be around £50m, to help finish the construction. 

You come from a very socially-minded place, as we were discussing this idea of changing society. How do you find your comfort zone with seeking private investment into public institutions, or that balance of fundraising and keeping the market—keeping the wolf from the door, in a way?

Sir Nicholas Serota: I love persuading people to use the wealth that they have for the benefit of the public as a whole.

 [Laughter]

I mean, in the case of Len, he made a commitment to the Tate relatively early on, but it was only announced after we had opened. I think he had some doubts as to whether or not he wanted to be publicly acknowledged as someone who’d given a very substantial sum of money to a public institution. And I think that, had we been able to announce his name in 2012 or 2013, then putting his name on the building would have been a less controversial exercise than it perhaps became, because the name appeared just before we opened.

And he’s a great philanthropist. I think there are others who’ve supported the Tate—and indeed many other institutions in this country—and many of them are people who’ve come to this country in the past 10 or 20 years and who are making a contribution.

I’m not dissembling when I say I did enjoy talking with them and persuading them to use their money in this way.

Charlotte Burns: Because you have a belief that people, in a way, should use their money to help others, if they can?

Sir Nicholas Serota: Yes. 

Charlotte Burns: Do you find that the philanthropic landscape in England shifted drastically during the time that you have been working in the arts here?

Sir Nicholas Serota: There’s a much greater willingness now, than there was, to give.

I think the benefit of giving in terms of tax-benefit and so on has beenmuch improved. Gift aid obviously made a difference. And in fact, you can now give as effectively or tax-efficiently in this country as you can in the States. There’s not such a big difference, really.

There is a difference in the culture, and there is a big difference in the sense that a lot of people in America who have made money feel that they should give enough to their children for those children to never have to think again about earning money. But otherwise, they are inclined to put money into foundations, and for those foundations to act independently of the family.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Sir Nicholas Serota: Whereas in this country, I think there’s still tendency to want to pass money on. And that’s in the nature of the culture, really.

Charlotte Burns: Do you see that changing?

Sir Nicholas Serota: I haven’t seen much evidence of it changing.

Charlotte Burns: No?

[Laughter]

Never know, I suppose.

You are leading a team of 17 creative industry leaders in a two-year research project looking at the role that creative thinking should play in the educational policy. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Sir Nicholas Serota: I think there are many people in this country who have become concerned at the fact that not just the arts, but the whole place of creativity is being challenged within the education system and particularly, in the secondary education system from the ages of 11 to 18.

There’s a feeling that the arts are being marginalized and are under pressure in part because the government has put a great deal of emphasis on the STEM subjects—science, technology—and as a result, fewer students are taking their studies in the arts subjects to the level that I think is appropriate for a holistic education.

So, we’ve brought together a group of individuals who range from the Children’s Laureate to former civil servants, to people who’ve worked in education all their lives, to performers and choreographers like Akram Kahn or architects like David Adjaye, to look at what are the benefits of maintaining creativity within the curriculum.

That creativity applies to the study of history, the study of mathematics, the study of the sciences as much as it does to the arts. Because if you talk to people in business, they say that what they need more than anything is not children who’ve learned by rote, but children who’ve learned to use their minds in a way that allow them to respond to changing conditions.

We all live in circumstances that are changing faster than any time in the history of man. Most people will not be doing the job at the age of 40 that they were doing at the age of 25, unlike 20, 30, 40 years ago. Things are much less settled, and people need to be adaptable, and the way you become adaptable is by learning to respond to change. And if you learn by rote, you don’t respond to change.

Charlotte Burns: How far along are you in that process?

Sir Nicholas Serota: So, we’re taking evidence. We’ve sent out questionnaires, we’ve been doing interviews with both young people and those who are engaged in teaching, such as head teachers and others. We will report in September of this year.

Charlotte Burns: Report to…?

Sir Nicholas Serota: We will publish a report in September, and we hope that whatever government is in place at that time will take note.

Charlotte Burns: How do you surf those political waves? You have been through various governments. A lot of museum directors get too closely allied with one or the other and don’t manage to move so adeptly through those challenging waters. How do you stay involved and able to lobby for change whilst not being totally caught up in the storm and chaos?

Sir Nicholas Serota: Well, I think, Charlotte, the answer is that you have to have a sense of purpose and conviction and, in broad terms, a philosophy and a strategy that allows you to perhaps present the arguments in different terms to different people.

You also have to find a way of presenting it in terms of what they can understand or appreciate and can connect with. So people come to the arts from a whole range of different ideas and some are more sympathetic than others. But I think there are always arguments that can be deployed.

So, that’s what I do. I try and deploy arguments.

 [Laughter]

That’s a very civil servant response, wasn’t it?

 [Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: I want to talk a little bit about the role of art here, and what I mean is to go back a little to what you said about climate change in your article for the Guardian, that arts and culture can play a huge role in our thinking about the climate. What ways do you think that artists, and culture in a broader term, can add pressure?

Sir Nicholas Serota: I think artists bring into the public arena subjects of current concern. Not all artists, but some. The purpose of an institution is to provide them with a platform. We can do it on subjects of immigration, economic deprivation, climate change, a whole range of subjects that are current today, that artists are addressing both very directly and sometimes rather more obliquely.

One of the biggest successes in the Tate Modern program, of course, was Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project (2003-04), which did not set out to be a work that was addressing climate change as such, but it certainly drew attention to the phenomena and caused a certain amount of debate and discussion.

Charlotte Burns: So more presenting arguments to people. 

Sir Nicholas Serota: Just as writers do in the theater, or novelists do in fiction. There are both direct and oblique ways of addressing some of the conditions of contemporary society and the conditions of individuals’ relationships. It can be an artist like Richard Long or Hamish Fulton, making a very powerful statement about the relationship of the individual to the land, obliquely tells us how we should be responding to the pressures on the climate, the pressures on land use, and so on.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. That makes sense. How do you bring a more diverse audience into that? We’re at a moment in history where diversity in terms of gender equality, racial equality, sexual equality are very much being considered. There’s loud voices on all sides of these topics. How do you encourage diversity in terms of the people who are working in the arts, producing art, and also enjoying art and culture?

Sir Nicholas Serota: I think there are two principal ways. You have to present in your program exhibitions and projects that have been made by artists of diverse backgrounds. So as soon as Tate presents a show like “Soul of a Nation”, there’s a visible change in both the age and the ethnic diversity of the audience. You just walk in there and it’s a different audience. So you have to do that with real conviction and belief.

You also have to make it plain that people whose parents didn’t necessarily grow up in the arts might find a career in the arts themselves. And that is partly to do with what happens in schools, but it’s also very much to do with training opportunities.

It’s also to do with paying people properly. One of the things that we did do eight or nine years ago, no, 10 years ago, probably, at the Tate was to insist that when we took on interns they should be paid, because otherwise we were only getting a certain kind of person—

Charlotte Burns: Yes, that’s a good point.

Sir Nicholas Serota: —able to act as an intern because they could afford to do so, rather than because it was part of a vocation. You have to be proactive in creating opportunities for international exchange and for bringing in people with different kinds of backgrounds.

It’s only when you demonstrate those in your program or in your hiring policies that you will really see a change in the culture. And that change is probably taking place too slowly. You need some important role models: Kwame Kwei-Armah being appointed as director of The Young Vic is one such example. There are many others appointing women as directors of institutions to succeed those who have been serving for 28 years is another…

 [Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: I wanted to talk to you about attendance. Obviously, when we talk about broadening things then there’s a risk that people won’t want to come and see the shows of artists they’ve never heard of. A lot of exhibitions are to some extent judged by the success of the audience, in terms of the numbers through the door.

The Art Newspaper does an annual survey looking at attendance figures and people go up and down. I’m in the process of writing an article—which may or may not be published by the time this comes out—looking at attendance and whether it really is the most useful, most helpful metric in terms of defining success.

I was thinking about this because of something Okwui Enwezor had said to Der Spiegel last year in an interview, where he talked about the problems of popular sliding into populist. Other curators and directors I’ve spoken to when researching this article have talked a little bit about how the things that really bring in the crowds are the great dead white men of Modernism.

Bringing in an exhibition of a middle-aged female artist is probably never going to be such a big smash-hit but is sort of necessary as part of that redressing. What do you think about attendance figures, and the pressure to bring crowds in?

Sir Nicholas Serota: All institutions need to strike a balance, in a way, between on the one hand doing exhibitions that genuinely reassess some of the great figures of the past—both male and female—and also presenting exhibitions that show the unknown. We were talking earlier about Beuys in the 1970s. His work was unknown in Britain. We felt compelled at Oxford to make a show.

Anni Albers—there’s just been a show at Tate Modern, which is a very beautiful show. I think in audience numbers obviously it would not compare with the Picasso show that took place last year. But in terms of it being a success, it’s exceeded visitor number expectations. It’s brought to the attention of probably 100,000 people the work of an important artist, whose work had been, if not taken for granted, not given its due.

That’s should be the purpose of an institution doing its job. It ought to be possible to do both. But it’s essential that even the so-called “blockbuster” exhibitions are presented and actually genuinely open up new areas of interest. 

So, the Picasso show that Achim Borchardt-Hume curated so brilliantly at Tate Modern looking at Picasso in 1932 had never been done.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, it was totally

Sir Nicholas Serota: It was a revelation.

Charlotte Burns: Did you feel pressure to make sure you were well-ranked in the attendance figure surveys.

Sir Nicholas Serota: I felt no pressure whatsoever to be ranked in The Art Newspaper attendance figures each year. I always discouraged the communications team from blowing too hard on an exceptional attendance figure in any given year, because I knew that the following year it would almost certainly go down.

So, we’d get the headline the following year which says, “Tate Loses 10% of Its Audience”, which is what has happened, for instance, at the National Portrait Gallery and elsewhere.

It’s just not a great way of talking about the success of an institution. The success of an institution is where it has built an audience, that audience wants to come back rather than just coming once. It wants to discover new names, new artists, new ideas and follow the strands and thought of people who are conceiving the program.

Charlotte Burns: I have a few things here, tell me which ones are most interesting.

Audience expectations, curating your big dream show, achievements—what you’re most proud of—and advice you would give to people.

Sir Nicholas Serota: Oh, I can’t talk about any of those. I don’t have any advice.

Charlotte Burns: You don’t have any advice?

[Laughter]

Sir Nicholas Serota: I don’t have any advice.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: What about curating; throughout your career, you’ve done a lot of work as a curator yourself, is there a show, your sort of dream show, that you’re desperate to put on or revisit.

Sir Nicholas Serota: I’ve had a period away from being in galleries every day, and I’m beginning now to think about what curating I might do in the future. 

Listen, I’d like—the great thing about curating is that it obliges you to really get close to artists, to the work and to think about ways of making that work legible to an audience. That involves the choice of work, how you write about it, how you install it in the gallery—that’s a critical part of any show. I learned a lot from Jim Ede in terms of installation. I learned even more from David Sylvester.

Charlotte Burns: Not hanging with a tape measure, I read?

Sir Nicholas Serota: Not hanging with a tape measure, indeed.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: Relying on your eye, essentially.

Sir Nicholas Serota: Yes, yes.

Charlotte Burns: Brilliant, well, thank you very much, Nick. It’s been a real pleasure.

Sir Nicholas Serota: Charlotte, thank you. Thanks for doing all that work. You did a lot of work. I could tell.

Charlotte Burns: It’s my pleasure! Really, thank you for coming. I remember coming to London and Tate was always so exciting for me, so it’s a real personal highlight to interview you.

Sir Nicholas Serota: Tate’s always been exciting. When I used to go there in the ‘60s— the principal reason probably why I became involved with contemporary art at that moment, was that I saw a show at the Tate in 1964 that was called “’54-’64”. It was a survey of the previous decade. It was an unusual show for the Tate to do at that point because it was a very big, broad survey, not unlike “dOCUMENTA”. It gave me a panorama of work.

There were some surprising omissions. Warhol was not in the show, even in 1964, which was admitted by the curators subsequently to have been a mistake. But it just made me think, “art can tell us about the world.”

Thank you.