Wiard Sterk says Wales should learn that commitment and daring is what makes for success in the arts
Some weeks ago I visited Tate Modern again, to view the outstanding show of work by Theo van Doesburg. This early 20th Century Dutch artist, architect and writer was the joint founder with Mondrian of De Stijl. Much later, the two famously fell out with each other over the use of diagonals in their paintings – van Doesburg in favour and Mondrian against. In any event, by that time De Stijl, as a movement and as a collaborative collective of architects, artists and theorists, had also run its course. This show was jointly curated between Tate Modern and the Lakenhal Museum in Leiden in the Netherlands, his hometown for many years
Tate Modern was ten years old last Wednesday and many of us have been recalling its opening. During its first decade it has developed an immense international reputation, attracted unprecedented numbers of visitors and raised the expectations of and interest in art, giving the lie to the notion that ‘the public’ do not understand or enjoy modern and contemporary art. My personal Tate anecdote centres on my visit on the day after its official opening – the morning after the great celebrations. Wandering through the many exhibition spaces I came across Rebecca Horn’s Ballet der Spechte (Ballet of the Woodpeckers), a large, room size installation of wall length mirrors with small mechanical hammers tapping against them in irregular rhythms. The hammer action stops just short of smashing the mirror-glass and the installation requires technical perfection and a keen eye for detail.
I am always impressed by Horn and this work reminded me of her haunting installation in a ruined prison tower in Münster during the 1997 sculpture show there, where the public was invited to wander the dark and dank passages while similar little hammers tapped their rhythms on the walls. I was savouring the moment as I was alone in the room (a very rare occurrence in major art shows these days) and lost myself briefly in contemplation, mesmerised by the eerie rhythm of the hammers. I suddenly became aware of the reflection of the schoolmasterly stare of Nicholas Serota. I wanted to turn around and congratulate him on the success, but because of the confusion of reflections, I could not place him immediately and by the time I did, he had turned away and left the room. I spotted him going through various other rooms and later caught up with him on one of the long elevators, when he accepted my congratulations with a smile, which seemed to say: “Well, had you expected anything less?”. I realised that this commitment and absolute concern for detail, still inspecting and perhaps reconsidering the hang and installation of the works on the day after the night before, is what guarantees the success of such a massive and daring venture.
Tate Modern is now one of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions, with over 45 million visitors to date, contributing some £100 million to the London economy to boot. Besides being one of the most successful contemporary public art galleries, in art critical as well as business terms, it is also an outstanding example of the transformation of industrial heritage into a fantastic cultural facility. Its position along the Thames, opposite St Paul’s, has supported this success, but a high profile location is not necessarily a vital ingredient.
This is demonstrated by the Dia Centre for the Arts in Beacon, a small, rundown industrial town on the banks of the Hudson in upstate New York. Neither is an “iconic, landmark” building essential; Dia:Beacon is a single story former box printing factory, with rows of jagged skylights, rough floors and a very basic layout, but accommodates very well large works by Richard Serra, as well as works by many other major names such as Louise Bourgeois, Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, to name but a few. The conversion of the building is basic in comparison to Herzog and Meuron’s transformation of the former Bankside Power Station, but effective and elegant nonetheless. Beacon is well connected to New York by rail – one hour and 15 minutes from Grand Central – and the station is within two minutes walk from the art gallery.
The town of Beacon has undergone a significant transformation since the opening of Dia:Beacon in May of 2003, with empty and derelict shops now refurbished as art galleries and an influx of 70,000 visitors annually. This is modest perhaps compared to Tate Modern, but significant if you consider that Beacon’s population is barely 14,000 and that of Dutchess County just 280,000. Its close proximity to New York helps, of course, but with so much to compete with in that big city, it is perhaps even more impressive. As this is the States and the Dia Foundation is reliant on corporate and individual donations, most money invested in this venture is private, rather than public funding. Nevertheless, this example demonstrates that it does not necessarily require a brand new building by Gehry, a grand transformation of a vast powerstation or a dramatic setting in a major Capital to create the home for a contemporary public art gallery as a tourist destination. It does require vision, a committed partnership, a collection of great artworks and some imagination.