Time for a New Tate Gallery?

OCA tutor (and figurative painter) Jim Cowan takes on the contemporary art scene below. What do you think of what he says?

Does the Tate Modern need to change its name? Is there a need in London for a new Tate Gallery? Deep down in the bowels of Tate Modern, three large oil storage tanks once used to store the fuel for the Giles Gilbert Scott designed power station have been turned into the newest contemporary art space in London. With the opening of these subterranean tanks would the name Tate Contemporary not best reflect its changing role?


A form of apartheid has grown up in the art world recently that likes to separate Traditional and Modern from the newer and much cooler Contemporary. With the term Modern now considered in some quarters not to reflect the art of the present time would not a change of name be more suitable? If this is the case then there must be other galleries that could be used to show off their core collection to better advantage.

Tate Modern is the flagship gallery of the Tate Gallery franchise, which has a number of outlets throughout the country. There is the laidback and hip -on the beach, sand between your toes Tate St Ives. Then there is the Tate Liverpool that was opened so as not to neglect the good folk up North and of course the original Tate at Millbank which houses British art to the present time.

The Industrial aesthetic of Tate Modern suits a certain kind of art. With its off white walls, lack of natural light, exposed pipes, escalators that start at the basement and miss out the ground floor and galleries that are really just corridors, it is no wonder that domestic size pictures and sculptures look uncomfortable on its walls and on their plinths.
The hang of the gallery is not chronological and what sense people make of the developments in the story of Modern art is anyone’s guess. This could be to disguise the weaknesses and gaps in the collection due to previous purchasing policies. The thematic hang has been with us for some time and the move towards more contemporary art is certainly a cheaper option.

Paintings by Matisse and Bonnard are crying out for Mediterranean light or a near equivalent. Cubist paintings now look like postage stamps hung as they are in the largest gallery in the building and the dense jumble sale hang of Surrealist pictures one above the other, jostling for space is really just insulting. Then there is the curious case of the figurative painters, a selection of mostly 20s and 30s artists who are found in a cul-de-sac of a gallery that leads nowhere. One is tempted to ask is this how the Tate Modern sees the continuing figurative tradition? Does figurative art end with Meredith Frampton?

The Tate Modern Gallery was designed for the 21st Century’s love affair with the art of the spectacle – film, video, performance, live art and installation and now a new term – Contemporary Participatory Practise – the bigger the better. With the right attractions to bring in the crowds, the newly opened Tanks will be an obvious hit with tourists and thrill seekers. The Café Voltaire has come of age, the Dadaist legacy has triumphed, the action has stepped down from the walls and space hungry art has found its home.

It is time now to create a new Tate Modern. Paintings need to be rescued from the gloom and shown to their best advantage. An excellent gallery already exists in London and is to be found not far from Tate Britain. Charles Saatchi opened this beautiful light filled space in 2008 and having sold off his collection of seminal works by the YBAs is using it to promote his latest trends and discoveries to a mostly unenthusiastic reception.

The time is right. Liberate paintings from Tate Modern, return them to the light and leave Contemporary Art Practice to make its home by the Thames at Southwark.

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4 comments for “Time for a New Tate Gallery?

  1. brian
    24 July 2012 at 12:46 pm

    I actually enjoy seeing traditional, modern and contemporary art near to each other. It adds an overarching dimension to the space and puts new work within the context of history.

    The lighting in the galleries is designed to simulate the best viewing conditions, but you only find true Mediterranean light around the Med., pleasant as it is to visit galleries there with agreeable light and temperature.

  2. Dawn Finneran
    24 July 2012 at 11:26 pm

    Its quite an exciting development as the areas will be permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film, the first of their kind world wide.

    Just hope an emergency does not happen when I am down there its a bit daunting with people packed in around you.

    The Tate Modern is also planning to build on the foundations of the Tanks to give us a new 10 storey building which should be open in 2016. It has a real modern feel to it and Herzog & de Meuron have designed the extension.

    • Jim Cowan
      25 July 2012 at 6:33 pm

      I did manage to walk into a wall in the dark on my visit and at the opening there was a great number of people but I’m sure once the lighting issues have been sorted out the venue will be a great success. The Tate is keen to include historic as well as a contemporary presentations and with the great number of film, video and performance pieces that have built up over the past 60 years here is an opportunity to see works in context for the first time in a dedicated space.

  3. Andrew Howe
    26 July 2012 at 8:43 pm

    Whilst in London, I went into the Tate Modern this week with the specific purpose of looking at paintings, mainly because my course notes stress the importance of this above reading research. I have been many times over the years, but I have to agree that my reaction on this visit was almost identical to yours, Jim, particularly regarding the Cubist, Surrealist and Figurative galleries. I’m always struck by how the Surrealist gallery fascinates people and is thronged when other galleries upstairs can be near deserted.
    In my view though, Tate Modern strikes a pretty good balance between all of the visual art forms and its thematic hang is successful in encouraging a reconsideration of art in a different context to pure chronology. There was a good selection of photographs, films, installations and sculpture (not to mention performance art in the new Tanks), with international artists, such as from Iraq and Brazil, that I had not encountered before. I was also keen to see John Heartfield’s photomontages.
    I would consider these art forms to be examples of Modern Art going back to the early 20th Century. Whilst contemporary art is shown at Tate Modern, I don’t believe that is its primary function. I don’t see why we should admit that painting is dead and allow it to retreat to a different venue. That said, it does need a rethink as to how to manage the scale of the viewing space for paintings – how can they compete with the enormous Beuys installation?
    The definition of Contemporary is a moot point, seeing as my L3 Painting course requires a critical review of a contemporary artist or movement. I’d take that to mean an artist producing work now or contemporary within my lifetime.

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