'I Have No War with Saatchi'; Charles Saatchi's New Gallery Is Just One of Nicholas Serota's Current Concerns. More Worrying Is the Funding Crisis He Faces at the Tate

By Maddocks, Fiona | The Evening Standard (London, England), October 3, 2002 | Go to article overview

'I Have No War with Saatchi'; Charles Saatchi's New Gallery Is Just One of Nicholas Serota's Current Concerns. More Worrying Is the Funding Crisis He Faces at the Tate


Maddocks, Fiona, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: FIONA MADDOCKS

A BRIDGET Riley painting, dizzying monochrome zigzags fixed within a perfect circle, hangs on the otherwise bare walls of Sir Nicholas Serota's airy Millbank office. The man himself, in black trousers and white shirtsleeves, rapid mental oscillations masked by calm manner and angular frame, might be said to match this example of Sixties Op Art rather well, though by chance rather than design. He is hardly the sort to style himself around a picture (as one or two of his colleagues might).

Whatever the combination of ambition, obsession, doggedness and necessary vanity that has pushed him to the forefront of the British art world, he is not flamboyant.

His days of flares and long hair, remembered by those who knew him as a sedulous young director in the Seventies, are long gone. Since 1988 he has run the Tate, moving to the most exalted position in modern art in a resolute line from Oxford's Museum of Modern Art, via a dynamic and influential period at the Whitechapel.

Two years ago, with the opening of Tate Modern at Bankside, he presided over the realisation of a dream, a brash tearaway sibling (attracting 5.2 million visitors in its first year), as well as the now renamed, revamped Tate Britain on Millbank, where he keeps his office.

As chief of this double empire (not to mention Tate outposts at Liverpool and St Ives) he might, as one critic has suggested, be titled Head of British Art, Inc. The Riley (to be featured in a Tate show next year) has only been in place a few days.

Change, whether within his own four walls or in the Tate collection at large, is one of his most visible curatorial habits.

Soon after he arrived he caused widespread clucking when he moved everything in the galleries around - not, he says, for the sake of it, "but so that the familiar could be seen in a new context. It's a vital part of running a collection on this scale. "But things are rotating more slowly now than in the early 1990s," he adds as an afterthought, smiling a not infrequent smile (despite an unfair reputation for tight-lipped seriousness).

Last week news broke that the Tate may face a pound sterling1.5 million deficit unless its pound sterling26 million government grant is increased by at least the rate of inflation. Unruffled, Serota gives no hint of crisis. Speaking meticulously, softly, often with his eyes closed or fixed on an unknown middle distance (in fact his window looks straight across to the penthouse flat of a noted art collector, Jeffrey Archer), he spells out the position.

"We hold a press conference every two years. Usually we know what our financial position is. This year we haven't yet heard from the Government.

We're therefore working from figures we were given two or three years ago where there was no provision for any increase in our grant.

"In those circumstances, with inflation running as it is and with the downturn in the economy, if we don't get any more money we will be severely challenged. That means we will have to make some cuts, probably in our programming. But it's too early to say. We haven't been told."

QUITE why the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has not seen fit to communicate on so urgent a matter isn't clear. He takes a resigned view of those who accuse him of curatorial miscalculation, narrow outlook and folly in his refusal to charge for admission. He has heard it all wearyingly often.

"Simon (Jenkins, writing in the Evening Standard last week) presents a picture of museum directors standing with their hands out, asking for money, as if this doesn't happen anywhere else in the world.

I know only too well it does.

"I wasn't surprised to see him advocating admission charges. In my firm view it's right that the Government, on behalf of the public, should make an investment in education and learning which is what museums are fundamentally there to do. …

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