Friday, January 02, 2004

More on Tate

Brian Micklethwait has some follow up thoughts on Tate Modern. He reiterates an earlier point of his.

Thinking about it some more, I think what we may be witnessing here is the divergence along two separate paths of, on the one hand, "art" (i.e. paintings, sculptures, stupid objects), and on the other hand the process of attracting people to, and entertaining people in, what are still called "art" galleries.

This is a trend I thoroughly approve of, because on the whole I think that "art" these days is too big for its boots, and depends far more than it realises on the fact that people simply like going to art galleries, regardless of what's in them, simply because they are nice places where you can hear what any person you go with is saying and have a nice cup of coffee and a bun and buy an amusing biro. Discos without the bloody disco music, you might say, and with less disastrous drugs.

If this is so, then the Tate Gallery actually does this kind of thing better than most. Although I have reservations about the art, Tate Modern is tremendously successful as a place to go for a Sunday afternoon: quite entertaining temporary displays such as this "Weather Project", an interesting building, good cafes with nice views of London, and a shop selling books and CDs and stuff. But I don't think it is just Tate Modern, so much as the Tate Gallery in general. They are quite big on the idea of the "branch galleries", and as well as the two museums in London they have additional museums in Liverpool and in St Ives, Cornwall. As it happens, I have been to all four museums. In the cases of Liverpool and St Ives, I happened to be in those parts of the country for other reasons and I dropped into the museums because they were there, I suppose. The Liverpool one was pleasant enough and in a new waterfront development, but there was little art worth mentioning, at least not compared to what I can find in London. (When I went there was a special exhibition of "The Art of the Supermarket", which didn't look worth spending money on so I didn't go in). In the case of St Ives, I didn't even get to see the art, as the museum was closed for a "rehang" at the time. However, at the door I was told that the cafe and gift shop were open if I wanted to go in, so I went and had a latte and a piece of cake and sat and read a book for an hour or so and looked out the window at the view of the beach. Very pleasant. The building was nice. Somehow the art was largely irrelevant.

The Tate people also put out a magazine, which you can find for sale in bookshops and newsagents. This is the sort of thick paper, nicely printed glossy lifestyle magazine that looks nice on your coffee table. So they do the "galleries as entertainment and lifestyle" thing very well, even if they probably wouldn't put it that way if you asked them.

However, there is presently a "Turner and Venice" exhibition at Tate Britain which I should go to before it closes, and that one really is about the art. So it is possible to mix things. But this brings us back to British Art, which is where the Tate collection is strong. I am not as negative on Modern Art as Brian is. I just don't think there are any good collections of it in Britain, and relatively few in Europe. The best ones are in the US.

But the Tate Gallery is essentially a state owned institution, which makes it hard to expand outside the UK. The New York based Guggenheim has of course not been restricted in this way (although they have been happy to take public money too), and now has museums in New York, Las Vegas, Bilbao, Venice, and Berlin. I visited Bilbao last summer, and although I liked the building, I didn't have quite as fun an experience as I have done at Tate Modern or Tate St Ives. The reason for this is relatively simple. It wasn't the art. Like with the Tate, the best art is in the oldest museums and not the newer branch museums. The art wasn't great, but I expected this. (A nice young lady from Liverpool I was chatting with in the museum said that the one in Venice had the same problem. Like most nice young ladies, she had a boyfriend with her, sadly).

Like many galleries, this one includes a posh restaurant as well as a cafeteria. The posh restaurant had a lunchtime special of three courses and wine for about €13. As it would cost about €50 to eat there a la carte, I decided to go with this. The food was good and the decor nice, but I was rushed through it. I felt like I had about 20 minutes for my meal. Now, if I had paid more money I would not have been rushed, and similarly if I had gone to the self-service cafeteria I would not have been rushed. I do understand why they did this: in order to provide good value for money but also make a profit they had to serve lots of people. But somehow, it made the visit to the museum less fun. If they had charged €20 for the lunchtime special, I probably wouldn't have eaten there, but this would have actually been good as it would have meant that I would have likely eaten at the cafeteria where I would not have been rushed and this would have actually been more enjoyable. People who were willing to pay €20; would have had more time and would have got a better experience, so I think that in this case higher prices would have been better all round.

So, my gut feeling from this is still that the Tate people know what they are doing better than the Guggenheim people. And all of this has little to do with the art.

No comments:

Blog Archive