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London's Latest Renaissance

The city on the Thames overflows with new and refurbished museums to help fuel an artistic boom.

April 30, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER | Marjorie Miller is The Times' bureau chief in London

As with all of the new London museums, one of the main goals is accessibility--to increase public exposure to art by making museums bigger and friendlier, with bookstores, auditoriums and cafes as well as more galleries. Tate Modern does it in spades.

Between the top-floor cafe, with a panoramic view of the Thames, and London's largest art bookstore downstairs, there are three floors of galleries, two of which are for the permanent exhibit. The space means the Tate will be able to display about 50% of its modern collection at any one time--at least four times what it was able to show at Millbank.

The collection is arranged in four galleries according to genre--history, landscape, still life and nudes--rather than by the more traditional chronological categories.

"The chronology of modern art has grown incredibly long," Nittve said. "When [New York's] MOMA was built in '29, it was a short story. There was not a big distance between classical, modern and contemporary art. Now it is a very long story."

"We are saying that artists of the same generation often are more inspired by and react more to what has been done before. No one believes there is one single true story of modern art. There are many stories. Or, there are equally good suggestions for ways of looking at modern art," Nittve said.

"We want to show how these 17th century genres are still alive in art, how they have mutated, expanded and changed over the years."

On this day, the galleries were closed to all but those involved in hanging pictures and securing them. As seen through windows, they were spare, white rooms with floors of unfinished oak or concrete, spaces that will not compete with the artworks.

The Guardian newspaper's Jonathan Glancey, who has been allowed to tour some of the galleries, wrote that "the art on display is an eclectic collection--truly something for everyone--in precise white galleries, some with views out to St. Paul's [Cathedral] diffused by net curtain-like screens, others enclosed, like that displaying the intensely layered red and purple canvases of Mark Rothko."

Others who have not seen the thematic exhibits worry about the possibilities. Keith Patrick, editor of Contemporary Visual Arts said in an interview, "I think it's rather spurious and not necessarily original; you could get some alarming juxtapositions, like some wonderful Matisse bronze reliefs of a female behind in different aspects of abstraction next to that rather gross and popular poster of a female tennis player scratching her bottom."

Similar criticisms already have been lobbed at the revamped Tate Britain, which is now also hung by genre, not chronology.

One floor of Tate Modern is reserved for temporary exhibits, the first of which will be a display of single-room installations called "Between Cinema and a Hard Place," after a video of the same name by Gary Hill of Seattle. Here, Nittve said, is where Tate Modern can prove it is quick on its feet as well as being a solid and well-researched museum.

"We want to stay alive, close to the artists, to be quick and flexible in ways that institutions that have been around a long time find much harder," Nittve said.

Some critics have suggested that the opening of the Tate Modern leaves a vacuum at the Tate Britain, which Patrick said risks becoming "an ethnographic museum."

The Tate's split into two museums also risks confusing the public, as British contemporary artists are to remain part of Tate Britain but may also appear across the river as part of the international scene at Tate Modern. The annual exhibit of finalists for the Turner Prize for British contemporary art, for example, which has drawn ever larger crowds, still will be at Tate Britain.

But Nittve doesn't see a problem. Tate Britain will grow. Some artists will be on display in both museums. Others may be moved back and forth.

"This year [David] Hockney might be more present at Tate Britain, but next year it might be the other way around," he said.

In the meantime, the hottest ticket in town is to the opening of Tate Modern on May 11, a lavish reception for about 4,000 of London's hippest and richest art fans.

And Nittve expects the heat wave to last. His goal is to attract more than 2 million visitors a year. But can he really draw that kind of crowd with everything else going on in the London art world?

"Together you increase interest in visual art, you expand the audience. The hotter the situation is, the more public you get," Nittve said.


Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery, agrees. "Increasingly, people want to be in the public sphere in places where they can do something purposeful," Saumarez Smith said.

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