Since its opening in 2000, Tate Modern has become the world’s most popular museum of modern art. As quickly as the museum took off, it ran out of space. Large as it was, the museum that opened in 2000 was still surprisingly cramped, with only half of the six floors given over to exhibition space. The predicted two million visitors quickly became five, and by 2004 it was clear that original projections placing expansion way off in 2025 were wildly inaccurate. Expansion was needed immediately. Architects Herzog & de Meuron were appointed in 2008, planning permission was granted in 2009, and tomorrow, after twelve years of planning, fundraising and construction work, the most important new cultural building in the UK for almost twenty years is ready to open to the public.
With the new space in the ten-storey Switch Tower and the cleaned out and refurbished oil tanks below it, the display space has been increased by sixty percent, allowing the gallery to display works by over 250 artists from fifty countries, drawn from the permanent collection. There are also new members’ and dining areas, shops, gardens, and a free entry panoramic roof terrace with stunning views of London come rain or shine.
Over the years there are those who have complained about a lack of Picassos and other important artists, especially the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, Pollock, de Kooning, and other mid twentieth century Americans. The problem was that past trustees of the Tate gave little thought to purchasing them, and by the time the hole in the collection was rather noticeable, they were out of the Tate’s price range.
So what are they going to fill this new £260 million space with, and has all the money been worth it?
The opening of the Switch House isn’t just about more room to fill with the art that Tate has acquired since 2000 – it’s a relaunch of the museum as a whole, and it feels different.
When I saw the space it felt unfinished, and indeed there were still some finishing touches going on, but in truth what it really lacked was people; the building needs them to be complete. It is an immense space designed for crowds to flow through, and without them it lacks meaning and purpose. The brutalist concrete oil tanks under the Switch House, accessed from the bottom of the Turbine Hall ramp, are huge, and are the new home for live art – performance art, interactive digital art, and film instillations – all part of the Tate’s commitment to displaying the different media explored during the 1960s and thereafter. The tanks will have a rolling programme of performance art, some of which Tate will commission; while I was there one performer approached and reeled off the ingredients for a Molotov Cocktail before another came over and recited what was either the side label of or complaints procedure for Coca-Cola.
The stunning concrete spiral staircase takes you to the ground floor of the Switch House and it’s a stunning structure, with light flooding in through the brick cladding, helping, along with the light wooden flooring, to soften the concrete walls. Of course there are lifts to take you from floor to floor, but without question to get the best out of the building use the stairs. Each flight is different and they are as much pieces of sculptural art as functional features. On the first floor you’ll find the bar and a stunning new shop, while the next three floors are given over to galleries to display more of the permanent collection, most of which is currently photographic and sculptural work – including two live parrots.
Education has always been at the heart of Tate’s mission, and the entire fifth floor is given over to it for families, schools, and anyone else to take part in, while the sixth floor is given over to events. What is wonderful as you go through the floors is that some of the Tate office space and a conservation lab are on display as a reminder of the dedication and work which goes into the running of a museum like this. Members will be overjoyed at their new lounge on the eighth floor while dinners restaurant another floor up will love the views. The piece de resistance is the tenth floor’s 360 degree viewing platform, and as I’ve already said, the views are incredible.
To get the to old Tate Modern building, the iconic power station, renamed the Boiler House, you can cross from the fourth floor of via a bridge in the rooftop of the turbine hall. The bridge is almost invisible from below, having been designed to match the roof structure and mirror the cranes at the far end. In the Boiler House, the permanent collection galleries have been rehung, though it’s still home to almost all of the paintings (there were no more than ten paintings in the Switch House) and the exhibition spaces remain the same.
How has the art changed? The answer is that it hasn’t so much changed as opened up and widened. The hole in the collection will always remain unless Tate is bequeathed works to fill it. What they have done instead is to lead the way in shedding the old school art world thinking, with only European art and North American contemporary and modern art being of worth. They have collected works from across the globe in all kinds of media; some of it will speak to you, maybe none of it will – I must admit only Bable by Cildo Meireles spoke to me. But this will always be the case with modern art, and thus doesn’t entirely matter – a museum’s job is to show, educate, protect, challenge, and represent, not just to give people what they like.
As well as leading the way in opening up to the realities of global art (75% of the artworks on display have been acquired since 2000), half the art on show is by women. Contrast this with the previous 17%, a figure which is fairly similar worldwide.
Like it or not, what Nicholas Serota, Lord Browne and Frances Morris have created here is superb and not just world-beating. It’s world leading, and streaks ahead of other such global institutions. They have created a space that people, especially families will enjoy, and they have committed to collecting, supporting and representing the state of global contemporary art in a way no other curators have. People from around the world will flock to Tate Modern in numbers not seen before. They have achieved what they set out to do and created something that they and London can be truly proud of. It will be not just Serota’s greatest legacy, but that of Browne and Morris too. So go explore, enjoy the space even if the art isn’t your cup of tea, and be proud of this new stunning addition to London’s collection.