He cuts an ascetic figure, yet since taking charge of the national collection of recent British art, Sir Nicholas Serota (opposite) has turned a fusty institution into a commercial juggernaut. And he still has nine years to go. Andrew Davidson wonders how he'll use them.
It was just a scrappy note, hand-scrawled and pinned to a noticeboard, but when the staff at Tate Britain saw it, they must have thought, yup, job done. Kim Howells, minister of culture, had offered to the world his views on the Turner Prize exhibitors. Conceptual bullshit. The media furore that followed was in the best traditions of a prize that has long been one of the most cunningly conceived marketing tools the arts have ever seen.
Upstairs in his forbidding white cube of an office, Sir Nick Serota, the tall, lean, unsmiling director of the Tate, may have permitted himself a little lip-twitch of pleasure. Before Howells, there was a distinct danger that 2002's Turner Prize had a whiff of so-what? about it. The critics were unimpressed, many felt the standard of exhibitors was slipping, the buzz was virtually inaudible. Enter Howells.
It could almost have been pre-arranged.
Serota, sitting at the plain meeting table in his plain room above the main Tate Britain entrance, pours his coffee with precision. I ask him: is any publicity good publicity? He pauses as an academic would, to ensure his answer is thought through.
'I am very happy that the gallery gets written about, and that will inevitably be controversial from time to time,' he says.
So is the Tate obsessed with creating publicity? He pauses again. 'I began life as a maker of exhibitions,' he says quietly, 'and there is very little point in making exhibitions unless you bring people in to see them.' Another pause. Slow sip of coffee. Silence.
And that is the method of the man who now sits atop one of the most admired and successful arts organisations in the country. Precise, pared-down, always considered, 'a complete Puritan, the ultimate Calvinist', according to one friend. Yet he has, in seeming contradiction to his character, created a marketing-driven, publicity-adept, brand-oriented commercial juggernaut of a partly public body that deftly interlinks the conflicting interests of old Britain and new, and those in the art world and in business.
If that sounds too laudatory, just listen to the applause. Two years ago, Serota's opening of Tate Modern, the pounds 130 million new gallery converted out of an old power station on London's South Bank, was hailed as an extravagant success. Likewise, his pounds 32 million refurbishment of Tate Britain, the old Tate Gallery on London's Millbank. Even before then, his leadership of the Tate organisation was being praised as inspirational and his championing of contemporary British art seen as crucial to a perceived upsurge in national creativity.
And he has not just boosted demand for the work of a whole new generation of artists. He has, with Tate Modern, shown how the arts can revive the economy of a run-down locality. He has marketed his brand with the nous of a top retailer and increased revenues from non-government sources to about two-thirds of Tate's income. He has also, as he is required to do, put on critically acclaimed art shows, most recently those showing Matisse and Picasso, Barnett Newman, Andy Warhol and Lucian Freud.
In this rich menu of offerings, the annual furore over the Turner Prize is just an amuse-gueule. Similarly the gibes that Serota and the Tate are too powerful, or that he is a man too obsessed with controlling everthing in his empire. As a former gallery director puts it: 'He probably does want to control everything, and rightly so, because he is very good at it.' Serota, at 56, is simply the most able arts manager in Britain.
Yet life, you suspect, does not get any easier for such a driven achiever.
He keeps a succession of cleverly juggled balls in the air, without so much as a slip: Tate galleries in London, Liverpool and St Ives, that oh-so-admired brand, pounds 56 million operating expenditure, a legion of loyal business backers, a mission to create new awareness of British art and reach new audiences. …