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What the new Tate Modern tells us about the museum of the future

Switch House, Tate Modern. 
© Iwan Baan

What the new Tate Modern tells us about the museum of the future

The Switch House – a £260m new extension to the iconic Tate Modern – is about much more than the need for more wall space. It is, or at least it aspires to be, an experiment in figuring out what a 21st-century museum should look like.

The vision behind the new Tate Modern is bold for a major global art establishment institution. The flexible spaces offered by the new building mean that Tate will be able to showcase work that truly reflects the rich complexity of today’s artistic production and its blurring of the lines between traditional disciplines and art forms. No longer just a space for hanging pictures, displaying sculptures and projecting filmed images, it will now be capable of integrating live performance into its programming, and truly exploring mixed media art. This is very exciting, and it certainly points to a common challenge that all contemporary art museums face in the 21st century.

Amalia Pica, Strangers. © Tate

Yet it is not this that makes the new Tate Modern such an intriguing experiment. An outreach programme called the Tate Exchange is due to launch in September 2016. This is not your usual outreach initiative, sequestered away in a mouldering basement. Instead, the entire fifth floor is devoted to it, testament to how interesting and unexpected this project is. Tate describes it as:

… an open experiment. It’s an ongoing programme of events developed by artists, practitioners, and associates, both within and beyond the arts sector, aimed at building a dialogue around art, society, and the wider issues facing us today.

The (currently empty) fifth floor. Josephine Lethbridge

Tate senior staff have endeavoured to think of ways in which it might become a place where the public comes not just to look at art, but to discuss it, to make things, to meet for work or to convene socially.

The fifth floor and its “making areas” will be open to the public every day. Even the content that is to be presented to audiences will be collaboratively curated by the 50 or so Tate Associates, who “range from charities, universities, healthcare trusts, community radio stations, volunteer groups, to many more, both within and beyond the arts”.

So, what exactly is going on here? In order to understand the nature, goals and strategies of the exchange we need to take a step back and consider the context in which the new Tate operates.

Elitist art

Between 2013 and 2015 I was director of studies of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, a project that reviewed the state of the cultural ecosystem in England with a view to making policy recommendations. The picture emerging from the commission’s final report was bleak: funding cuts at central government levels have been accompanied by even more significant reductions in funding at the local level, while access to and participation in the arts remains heavily eschewed in favour of the well educated, the wealthy and the white sections of the population.

Warwick Commission report (2015). Author provided

Even free entry to national museums, one of the few arts policy measures to enjoy cross-party consensus, did not fare well. The report quoted data showing that in museums funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS): “Visits by UK residents fell by 3% over the period 2008-09 to 2011-12 while visits from UK residents from lower social groups fell even more, by 12%. The higher social groups accounted for 87% of all museums visits, the lower social groups for only 13%.”

This worrying picture has been further confirmed by a recent study of the Taking Part survey, which gathers data on cultural and sport participation in England, conducted by DCMS itself. This showed that “consistent museum and gallery goers” tend to be from a higher socio-economic group.

The new Tate extension has attracted considerable amounts of public funding (in arts funding terms): DCMS contributed £50m, the Greater London Authority £7m and Southwark council £1m to the building budget. These are substantial figures at a time in British social history defined by the proliferation of food banks, the rise of child poverty and drastic reductions in social security spending. Predictably, running costs of the enlarged Tate will also go up, and so might be their regular grant-in-aid.

The extent to which enjoyment of what the Tate museums (and the other heavily funded arts organisations) have to offer is restricted to the most privileged and well off in society (as well as London tourists) is therefore a delicate political problem. It is also, I would argue, an ethical issue. It is a problem with no easy solutions, however, in that its causes are ultimately structural and not up to any single organisation to remedy. Still, there is a growing consensus that arts institutions that absorb the bulk of available subsidies ought to do more to be inviting, relevant and less daunting for groups who are not regular arts attenders.

Roni Horn, Pink Tons. © Tate

New voices

The exchange is the way that Tate is taking up this challenge. Working with its 50 associates, which comprise established arts organisations, universities (including my own institution), and small community-based arts groups in London and beyond, Tate will offer curated content that is collaboratively produced. It will involve the public in its creation, enjoyment, and discussion with a view of encouraging a genuine exchange of ideas between artists, cultural professionals, museum staff, and the public on what the arts’ place, meaning, relevance – or indeed lack thereof – might be in today’s society.

I am notoriously sceptical of heavily funded organisations’ attempts to ditch their elitist image and divert attention from their audience demographics by playing the “inclusion” card. This is too often a self-defensive strategy rather than the result of a genuine desire to change. But I am also convinced that the task of achieving a more democratic, fair, representative arts funding policy is not one that can be left to the arts sector alone. Artists, activists, the general public and academics have a role to play here.

Tate Modern, with the new Switch House on the right. © Tate

Tate have offered a space in which they say they welcome exploration, challenging discussions and creative experimentation. It is too early to say how far they are really prepared to push and be pushed, and whether they will eventually bring themselves to relinquish their cultural authority (at least on the fifth floor of the new building), but this is certainly too tempting an invitation to refuse. Because the debate on what the museum of the future might look like needs as broad a range of voices as possible.