State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Post Tate Modern

The Tate is a brand synonymous with British art and its influence is growing. A recent article in the Globe suggests that art denizens of Vancouver are discussing and arguing on how to remake the Vancouver Art Gallery with suggestions of turning it into a Tate style franchise. The Tate as a brand came into being because of practically one man, the Tate’s director Nicolas Serota.

What Serota did was remake the idea of going to a gallery. In fact, he made it into a national tourist attraction. He blended the idea of tourism; its kitsch, tacky and opportunistic sensibility with the esoteric realm of art appreciation. The Louvre in Paris and the Uffizi in Italy had already been doing this for eons however contemporary art is not the attraction in those places, master works are. I would go so far as to say history itself is on display in those places.

What the Tate Modern is – in concept and in practical terms – is a complete game changer for the arts. Art tourism has never been bigger and a lot of it has to do with what Serota did in England. This summer he has opened huge former oil tanks below the gallery for film and performances. Aptly titled The Tanks, these spaces are monolithic caves that will be presenting the most avant garde and pretentious stuff you would ever want to see. But people will go for the space as much as they would for the art.

This raises a very interesting point. Do places have to have great spaces to exhibit art? I would say yes. I think it is a very good investment for communities to design and build spectacular spaces. Or renovate interesting buildings that already exist. Art is already something nebulous and mercurial; it deserves to be housed in strange and wonderful places. But when something like art becomes a tourist attraction it can have its disadvantages.

When I visited the Tate Modern it was a very normal Wednesday early in June. It was packed, and it was packed not with art goers but tourists. They are different and I can tell you why. Art goers need space and silence so that they can view what they are seeing unfettered. They need to be able to be surprised by the art which can only happen when you think you are alone. Tourists just need something to look at between eating too much at lunch and deciding how to get back to the hotel later. At the risk of sounding like a complete snob (by this point I would guess you think I am already) standing in front of Joseph Beuys’ work based on his hunt for food in the German forest during World War II does not mix well with three whining children who want to go back to the cafeteria for ice cream and a couple necking in the corner. However if you are with other art goers, you would be given the space and time you needed before they take their turn at viewing.

I get it. These places keep contemporary art alive and frankly, more people have seen Beuys’ work than he ever imagined would. But this trade up for numbers (both people and money) over the sanctity of art viewing can be depressing.

And it is a trend that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Having participated in Nuit Blanche and sadly realized that everyone I performed for was drunk or busy on their iphones I can safely say that art going en mass is here to stay. Yes, the festival of food, booze and stuff to look at is at its peak right now and it seems to be the way most people today experience art. I am hoping that this phase is just that, and once the world calms down about how freakin’ cool the Tate Modern is, I will be able to go there again with just a few other people who want to actually see their wondrous Rothko room among other greatness that abounds. The Tate has been collecting art for a long, long time.

Me in the Tate’s Rothko Room, a contemplative respite from the shrill enthusiasm of tourists

I agree with what the Tate Modern is trying to do and I think that other places should follow suit. In fact its brand is now franchised and I was able to visit Tate Liverpool which also housed some really, really stunning contemporary sculpture. But tourism and art don’t really mix. I think however that perhaps over time we might see that they do when the audiences are trained accordingly. This will take some time and some expertise. Art education for example should include how to look at art, not just how to make it.

Perhaps this idea might even create a new field in the arts: art/tourist interpreter. Maybe a guide book is in order with things like:

– Allow for one hour after lunch before entering the gallery.
– Feed your children before you pay for your tickets to the gallery.
– If you must indulge in carnal behaviour please find an area far away from the art or at least indulge beside an appropriate work.
– If you are here because you think you should go or because Justin Bieber visited the gallery please refrain from talking, you are probably an idiot.

Hey, I think I like this idea. If you have any more suggestions for how tired and testy tourists should behave please send them my way!

Next week: Van Gogh, Prophet of Bloom

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