Riddell, Mary, New Statesman (1996)
The head of Tate Modern wants [pound]2m more from the government, and less censorship from the prudish Brits
Although he has been ill for several days, Lars Nittve has risen from his sickbed to make our interview. Flu, I presume, but he says mysteriously: "No, something a bit more serious. But I am having the antibiotics, and the temperature has gone away." This is good news, particularly given that, in the arena of millennial cultural projects, hopeful prognoses are in such short supply. The combination of maladies strangling the Dome never did respond to treatment. The blancmange syndrome afflicting Sir Norman Foster's bridge has proved chronic. However frail its director is currently feeling, only Tate Modern has looked healthy from the start.
Next week is the first anniversary of the museum's opening. It was expected that, in the initial year, 2.5 million would visit Jacques Herzog's and Pierre de Meuron's conversion of the old Bankside power station designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Nittve now expects the final tally to be more than double that, at 5.3 million. Tate Modern, a retro-industrial cavern, has become the cultural honey pot of the swarming classes in search of the Brobdingnagian experience. Disney for thrills, Bluewater for browsing, IKEA for sofas and queue-induced nervous breakdowns, Bankside for art. So vast are the crowds that Nittve, though an admirer of Foster's "beautiful miracle of abridge", is rather relieved that it proved such a turkey. "In terms of visitor numbers, we should be happy that it didn't open the first year. We have been just on the edge of the numbers we could handle. A million more people could have been a disaster for us -- unbearable."
Being ringmaster of the hottest circus in town does not seem to have unduly excited Nittve. An imperturbable man of 47, he is divorced with an 11-year-old son, who has visited every third weekend since his father was hired by the Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota. Formerly a major curator and art critic in Sweden and Denmark, Nittve started out as a librarian, worked as a ski instructor and was halfway through an economics degree in Stockholm when he switched to history of art. His political development is a more gradualist curve from schoolboy Maoism to the "social liberalism" that informs, among much else, Tate Modern's cafeteria set-up.
Pricey restaurants with panoramic vistas over the Thames are out. High-rise cheese-and-pickle baps are in. As Nittve says: "There shouldn't be a hierarchy between views. You should be able to have a cheap sandwich on the higher floors, rather than a gourmet meal. The commercial instinct is an upstairs/downstairs arrangement, but it should be democratic.
"The only hierarchy is that the higher you go, the longer you queue." Ambitious high-rollers in the contemporary art world may reflect that this precept also applies to them. When Nittve was appointed in preference to home-grown contenders for the biggest new arts job on offer in Britain for years, he joined a string of influential incomers. His compatriot Sven-Goran Eriksson coaches the England football team. In the arts, Karsten Witt (Austrian) runs the South Bank and Michael Kaiser (American) has recently left as chief executive of the Royal Opera House. Although Pierre-Yves Gerbeau could not save the Dome, he did invest it with some verve, and Bob Kiley (American) might yet save the Tube, if only the government would let him. Why do we have to import so much talent?
"Maybe I had more international experience than most in Britain. Because Sweden is a small country, you tend to work outside your turf," he says tactfully. "Ultimately, when you come to this level of job, in a corporation or a gallery--it's about the individual rather than the nationality. Nationality doesn't really matter anymore." Besides, globalisation cuts both ways. His counterpart in Stockholm, until recently, was a Briton.
Only two aspects of British cultural life astound Nittve. …