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Tate is the most interesting example of patronage in recent times

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Much credit must go to Nicholas Serota, who has established good relationships with governments of all persuasions, writes Paul Finch

On the face of it, car manufacturing and the world of art and sculpture have little to do with each other, except in the case of Pop Art or super-realist images of the projecting wing or the gleaming chassis. We don’t connect Jeremy Clarkson with Bernard Berenson.

Yet culture is indivisible, a fabric of many ideas, a weave across time and space which can bring very different worlds into unexpected conjunction. Thus on Monday this week, Tate Modern held a media conference to announce a long-term partnership with the Korean car manufacturer Hyundai.

Vice-chairman Chung Eui-sun described the connection between art and cars as being similar to a ‘needle and thread’, which might seem pushing it a bit. On the other hand, the two organisations have a shared interest in several areas: innovation, the emotional relationship between people and what they experience, internationalism and, not least, art itself.

Hyundai has been a major funder of the Seoul arts scene, while Tate Modern has quite independently been buying the work of the Korean artist Nam June Paik; now the first fruits of the new collaboration will be the purchase of nine of his pieces spanning a 40-year career (he died in 2006, aged 74) to add to the Tate Modern collection. But the basis for the new 11‑year collaboration will be the commissioning of site-specific works by contemporary artists for the Turbine Hall - which is where the architecture comes in.

Until now, the Turbine Hall has been a grand reception for Tate Modern, and the focus for some spectacular exhibitions. But with the completion in 2016 of the Herzog & de Meuron extension to the south, the hall will become much more of a heart for the complex. On Monday, we had a sneak preview of the new space, along with the high-level bridge (also by Herzog & de Meuron), which connects old and new across the hall, providing dramatic views from the top of the volume.

The Jubilee Line aside, the architectural story at Tate, both on Millbank and in Southwark, has been the most interesting and consistent example of architectural patronage and delivery seen in London in recent decades. Most of the credit for this must go to Nicholas Serota, who has managed to establish good relationships with governments of all persuasions while persuading private donors and foundations to give money in unprecedented amounts.

A significant part of this success has been an absolute determination that there should be free access to much of the Tate’s ‘product’, even though most major galleries around the world charge. There is of course a case to say that public funding of cultural institutions is a way of diverting money from poor people to subsidise those who could afford a ticket. But there can be little doubt that it is free access that has encouraged sponsors like Hyundai to become involved: sponsors like visitors, and the unprecedented success of Tate Modern in attracting audiences has helped its cause since it opened in 2000.

Mass audiences have made Tate popular with politicians because they justify public investment while providing a symbol of British cultural vitality. As Nick Serota noted, it is also a way of introducing audiences to the unfamiliar, rather than the already popular, and the Tate approach is now beginning to be adopted elsewhere - the Museum of Modern Art in New York is thinking about free access to its first-floor shows.

Hyundai’s sponsorship is strictly for commissioned artwork, but there are other sponsors happy to attach their name to architecture and construction - again because they know the resulting buildings will be full of people. They may or may not have arrived by car.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • UK national art galleries have been legally bound to be free since 2001 - Tate was free even before that. Tate's popularity is indeed a major achievement of Serota and other staff. However, what is an appalling failure of Serota and the Tate Board led by Lord Browne is the active promotion of fossil fuel companies to that mass audience in a time of climate change - Tate promotes BP in its galleries, on its buildings and marketing beyond despite massive opposition from climate conscious stakeholders including Tate members and its visiting public. As part of the architectural profession and its efforts to combat climate change let's be part of ending oil sponsorship of arts and culture - art museums should not be platforms for companies with business models bringing dangerous climate change.

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