how the tate modern changed art in britain

It’s hard to imagine a time before Tate Modern, but at one point London was the biggest city in the world not to have a public museum dedicated to contemporary art. As the Tate’s new expansion opens to the public, we look back at how the gallery has...

by Niru Ratnam
16 June 2016, 8:05am

When Tate Modern opened its doors in May 2000, London's art world was emerging from decades of being a provincial backwater. The previous year's Turner Prize was widely regarded as one of the strongest ever editions with Tracey Emin, Steve McQueen, Jane and Louise Wilson and Steven Pippin battling it out, with Tracey Emin's controversial My Bed stealing the column inches, if not the actual gong.

Tracey Emin, My Bed

The YBAs had been gradually transforming from enfant terribles into art establishment figures over the last years of the 20th Century, the wheels set in motion when Damien Hirst won the prize at his second attempt in 1995. So successfully, and quickly, was it happening that they even launched a new big art prize aimed specifically at a post-YBA generation just before the Tate Modern opened, in March 2000, Beck's Futures, which was organized by and took place at the ICA.

These years through the 90s were the moment when Britain's art scene shifted from being a minor scene that few outside Britain took much notice of to becoming a key part of an increasingly international art world. Prior to the decade there was a movement, New British Sculpture that consisted of serious-looking but largely dull sculptors who grouped around the Lisson Gallery in the 80s (Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow, Alison Wilding and so on). At roughly the same time there was brief flurry of interest around a group of Scottish painters including Peter Howson and Ken Currie who produced cartoonish figurative works. The once promising 70s British art milieu that had produced a quirky and inventive conceptual art scene had dwindled, starved by the lack of collectors and commercial opportunities.

Tony Cragg, Stack

Even though the YBAs breathed new life into the moribund art scene, the re-born London art world was still relatively inward-looking. There was no particular conceptual thread linking the YBAs - artists such as the Chapman Brothers made very different work to an artist such as Rachel Whiteread for example. Instead this was a movement that was largely predicated on two things - growing up in Thatcher's Britain and either going to, or knowing somebody who went to, Goldsmith's College. The caricature of young British artists as only being interested in sex, beer, cigarettes and semi-ironic 90s laddish behaviour was exaggerated by the mainstream media but had validity. Only a handful of this generation of artists, such as Liam Gillick, made work that overtly seemed to be in conversation with contemporary art practice being made elsewhere in the world.

The commercial gallery system was small although growing, with White Cube, Anthony D'Offay, Karsten Schubert and Interim Art all consistently producing strong exhibition programmes. However up until 2000, no major foreign gallerist had made London a base. The Saatchi Gallery, then located at Boundary Road, had moved from its international programme of the late 80s to different iterations of Charles Saatchi's collection of YBA work, a programme that culminated in the Royal Academy exhibition Sensation in 1997.

The scene then, at the turn of the century, was more buoyant that it had been for years, thanks to the successes of the YBAs, but it was still largely focused on artists living and working in Britain. This was out of tune with trends that were emerging elsewhere. Catherine David's 1997 edition of Documenta, the five year intellectual Olympics of the art world hinted at an internationalism that would be made overtly manifest in the 2002 edition. The programmes of spaces such as the Serpentine and the Whitechapel as well as projects by organisations like Artangel (who brought Matthew Barney's work to London in 1995) and articles in Frieze magazine were some of the few reminders that exciting things were going on in other parts of the world that were very different to young British art.

Richard Long, South Bank Circle

British art was healthy, but insular, the time was ripe for the scene to move beyond its own borders and the launch of Tate Modern marked that moment of moving from the local to the global. The museum did something that was simple but at the time brave: it placed British art within an international context. It did this in the first place by ditching chronological displays and embracing thematic displays. So, for example, a work by Richard Long, the contemporary British sculptor was placed next to a Claude Monet painting in a display called Landscape/Matter/Environment in a hang that was at the time ground-breaking and has since been adopted by many museums around the world. The four themed floors that the Tate Modern's collection was organised around received a pummeling from critics who liked their Surrealism in a neat order straight after Cubism and just before abstract expressionism, but this way of hanging the collection had a number of advantages. Firstly it meant that significant gaps in Tate's collection of modern and contemporary art could be elided. Secondly it took British art and gave it an international context through hanging British artists next to international artists. Richard Long's work might have had little to do with Monet's but the act of placing it there gave it more art historical gravitas than putting it in a room of other 80s British practitioners.

This drive towards putting British art within an international context was made clear in Tate Modern's first temporary exhibition, Century City, which took place in 2001. The exhibition was spread out in different locations through the building and focussed on the art worlds of nine cities at different points through the 20th century. Paris was presented focusing on the years between 1905 to 1915; Lagos in the years 1955 to 1970 and New York in the years between 1969 to 1974. The city that was presented as being the most contemporary? London, which got 1990 to 2001 and a premier sitting in the Turbine Hall. The message of the exhibition was clear: the story of modern and contemporary art was an international one and one that came to its climax at the beginning of the 21st century in London at Tate Modern.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Concorde Grid

It was a grand claim that was not entirely borne out by the contents of the London section but the aspiration for London to become an international art hub would turn out to be credible one. The opening of Tate Modern meant that international commercial gallerists were drawn to the capital. Larry Gagosian marked the opening of his first London venture a couple of days before the Tate Modern opening with a performance by Vanessa Beecroft. In the years that followed he would be joined by fellow mega-dealers David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Marian Goodman and Pace. London's gallerists such Jay Jopling, Victoria Miro and Sadie Coles would move to larger galleries and represent more established international artists. More overseas artists started studying and working in London with three of the four Turner Prize nominees in 2000 being born outside London (Michael Raedecker, Tomoko Takahashi and Wolfgang Tillmans). The Frieze Art Fair launched in 2003 bringing even more international galleries to London, and a glamorous, high-spending international art set.

London's new collectors were increasingly cosmopolitan and would go on join Tate's International Acquisition Committees that were specifically set up to continue to broaden the collection. In 2014 Sir Nicholas Serota was ranked number one in the Art Review Power 100 with the magazine arguing that Tate's influence around the world made him more powerful than the likes of Larry Gagosian or David Zwirner.

Tate Modern was a timely venture. London's art world had gained vibrancy from the YBAs and it was time to look outwards to the world. London itself was becoming an international city, fuelled by easy money in the city, increasing property prices and an inflow of migrants. 16 years later, the new Tate Modern opens and the type of city and country it will reflect is on the cusp of another change, for better or for worse.


Text Niru Ratnam

Think Pieces
Modern Art
contemporary art
Tate Modern
london art