Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

I Have a Duty to Lead People to the Unfamiliar; People Tate Britain Director Alex Farquharson Is Determined to Push a Message of Inclusion as Brexit Looms, He Tells Marcus Field

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

I Have a Duty to Lead People to the Unfamiliar; People Tate Britain Director Alex Farquharson Is Determined to Push a Message of Inclusion as Brexit Looms, He Tells Marcus Field

Article excerpt

Byline: Marcus Field

ALEX Farquharson is a man on a mission. As the director of Tate Britain he is determined that Brexit will not turn his museum into a parochial backwater. Instead, he argues, "it has created an environment in which the exploration of issues of belonging and identity are all the more pressing. It certainly won't make Tate Britain any less international."

In terms of exhibitions and displays this campaign will be a subtle one, as his announcement this morning of Tate Britain's 2018 programme reveals. One of the main shows will be about figurative art in London since the mid-20th century; another is a blockbuster on the Pre-Raphaelite painter Burne-Jones. Neither seems an obvious way to promote internationalism. But this broader story, he explains later, is in the details.

When we meet to discuss the new programme Farquharson is buzzing with enthusiasm. This is his first newspaper interview since he started the job 18 months ago but he has already made his mark. The David Hockney retrospective has been a huge success, with opening hours extended to midnight this weekend.

The Queer British Art show in the lower galleries has divided critics but Farquharson is pleased with the positive response it has had from the LGBT community and uses the pairing to illustrate his approach to exhibition planning. "One has a duty to lead people from the familiar to the unfamiliar," he says. "The breadth and newness of the programme is as important as the presentation of household names."

Farquharson, 47, knows a thing or two about newness. In his previous job he was director of Nottingham Contemporary, where he oversaw the completion of one of Britain's largest spaces for contemporary art, which he ran for eight years. Before that he worked as a freelance curator.

He is not an art historian by training and came to curating via a degree in English and fine art at Exeter and an MA in arts criticism at City University. As a regular contributor to Frieze magazine he is firmly established in its orbit and in the East End art scene which it did so much to cultivate.

For 10 years he has owned a flat in Bethnal Green (he spent weekends in London during his years at Nottingham Contemporary) and has observed firsthand how the capital's art scene has changed. "I remember a time when you could see what was going on in contemporary art in London in a day or two. Now it would take all week."

With his easygoing charm, Farquharson stands in contrast to Tate Britain's previous director, Penelope Curtis, a scholarly but less touchy-feely boss. While Curtis's displays were crisp and chronological, Farquharson is keen to explore the messy business of how every aspect of British life manifests itself in art, gayness currently being the most obvious example.

As well as Queer British Art and the Hockney exhibition, the main display in the Duveen galleries is by Cerith Wyn Evans, a veteran of the Eighties gay club scene. The outside of the building is floodlit in pink and this year's Pride festival will be launched at the gallery next month. There will even be a Tate float in the parade. The message of inclusion couldn't be more positive but just in case anybody is wondering, Farquharson says Tate Britain's coming-out celebration is "not a directorial self-portrait".

His desire to explore other less mainstream movements in British art is also evident in his commitment to show more work by black and minority ethnic artists. You can see this interest in the rooms where displays from the collection have been rehung.

As well as work by younger black artists such as Chris Ofili and Steve McQueen, there is a 1982 painting by Denzil Forrester, a Caribbean artist who moved to England in 1967. "That Eighties generation made work that in a very direct way tackled the experience of race," says Farquharson. "The issues are different now but to write them into the story is important. …

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