Expanded Tate Modern’s new head on running art museums in the selfie era

You have to reach out and encourage visitors to engage with what’s on show, says Frances Morris, first woman director of the London museum whose HK$2.9 billion extension opens this week

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2016, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2016, 5:01pm

As one of the world’s most visited art museums – 5.7 million people reportedly passed through its doors last year – it’s humbling to hear that the Tate Modern in London, which opens a new 10-storey extension on June 17, still counts getting the (right) crowds in as a major challenge.

“We are a public museum, we are owned by the people. Its collection is the nation’s investment in culture,” says Frances Morris, director of the upgraded Tate Modern, “and the biggest challenge I think – and the most exciting thing – is: how do we ensure that people who [don’t] regularly come to the museum have access to their culture.”

“We can do everything we can to provide a wonderful welcome; we can make extraordinary exhibitions ... but how do we encourage people who wouldn’t regularly go to museums or who are born in families who don’t enjoy art and culture?

“How do we reach out to new audiences so that we really connect with the general public?” says Morris.

The new extension – called the Switch House as it’s named after the area of the former Bankside power station on which it stands – will address these questions.

Designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, the £260 million (HK$2.86 billion) project will add 20,700 square metres of space, increasing the size of Tate Modern by 60 per cent.

While that means, in practical terms, more space for visitors (the average of 5 million a year is more than double the number for which it was designed) and for its growing art collection, Morris says what’s equally important is the venue’s ability to engage.

“I think we live in a culture where, particularly now, young people are really interested in engagement,” she says.

“And we have moved from the notion that museums provide authoritative experiences that people can possibly receive, to a concept that people really enjoy engagement, whether it’s pressing a button to make something work, taking a selfie or engaging in a debate.

“I think part of that challenge about reaching out is to create a context where people can feel they can be engaged, they are empowered to engage.”

And to do that the museum must not make their visitors feel stupid or talk down to them, says Morris, and it should be a place where people can debate, learn or just relax.

It’s so important for any city to have a place where you can go and visit and find the history and the best of contemporary art and without that, Hong Kong will be less rich a scene than it could be
Frances Morris

“One of the great appeals we have at Tate in this expansion is to bring all those things together, so the public space is generated through the engagement with art.

“So if you want to hang out there with your mates, that’s fine; if you want to come and see art and talk about it, that's fine; if you want to be all on you own, just immerse in art that’s fine too. Having the possibility of lots of different types of engagements, and lots of different types of people, I think that’s really important.

“That’s the idea of a very democratic space, whereas for many years museums have been rather exclusive spaces.”

Morris succeeds Chris Dercon this year as the Tate Modern’s first British director, and first woman at the helm. Lars Nittve, who until last August was the executive director of M+, the planned museum at the West Kowloon Cultural District, was its founding director.

Morris joined Tate Modern in 1987 as a curator and rose through the ranks to become director of collection, international art. She is perhaps best known for initiating the museum’s unconventional non-chronological hang of the permanent collection that mixes contemporary art with works by Picasso and Matisse. She has also curated important retrospectives of women artists including Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama and Agnes Martin.

Morris is keen that the museum programmes should reflect the multicultural nature of London.

“So it can’t just be about Western European art, it must be international, a big priority is to make sure the programme is as international as possible,” she says.

“We do represent and engage in the best Asian art; really exciting developments from the Middle East and Africa and bring all that here because ... none of us live on islands any more, we are all connected.”

Through its Project Space programme (a series of peer-to-peer collaborations with cultural organisations from around the world), the Brooks fellowship scheme as well as conferences,

Tate Modern has been connecting with East Asia, including Hong Kong and China. Morris says these collaborations are the first phase of what will evolve into a professional relationship.

She was in Hong Kong in March to attend Art Basel Hong Kong and was excited by the work of non-profit arts outfits such as Para Site and the Asia Art Archive. The veteran curator says she hopes that M+ will be realised.

“It’s so important for any city to have a place where you can go and visit and find the history and the best of contemporary art and without that, Hong Kong will be less rich a scene than it could be,” says Morris. “It really needs a great museum and it has one on plan.”