Tate Modern’s Frances Morris: ‘If it rained I went to the museum. That had a huge impact’

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tate Modern’s Frances Morris: ‘If it rained I went to the museum. That had a huge impact'” was written by Charlotte Higgins, for The Guardian on Saturday 16th April 2016 07.00 UTC

“This office,” says Frances Morris with a grin, “was built for a big man.” She demonstrates: with her modest height, she can barely reach past the deep windowsills to the blinds. Still, this brisk and cheerful woman, dressed in artworld black with silver brogues, looks delighted to have attained the corner office, that of the director of Tate Modern. She is the first woman to be in charge since it opened in 2000, but perhaps more significantly, the first insider. The previous incumbents – from Sweden, Spain and Belgium – swept into Tate Modern trailing wafts of European glamour, perfectly appropriately given the museum’s international perspective and collection. Morris, by contrast, was born in south-east London, where she went to a state secondary school before Cambridge and the Courtauld Institute of Art. Now 57, she has worked at Tate, under its overall director, Sir Nicholas Serota, for 30 years. Her deep understanding of the institution has been deemed what is required just at the moment that Tate Modern is about to go through its biggest change yet: the completion of the £260m extension that is due to fling open its doors on 17 June, increasing the already massive display space by 60%.

I have heard this radical expansion called “Serota’s Afghanistan” by one artworld wag. It is true that costs have risen from £215m (partly, though not wholly, through inflation); that the extension was originally planned to open in 2012 for the London Olympics, though the financial crisis of 2008 saw to that; and that the previous directors of Tate Britain and Tate Modern resigned abruptly within a month of each other last spring. It has been a turbulent time, and Serota, who turns 70 this month, would have been forgiven for stepping down before now, had the project run on its original timetable. Does Morris anticipate a new boss in the near future? “I hope not,” she says with enormous emphasis. “One of the attractive things about the job was to work more closely with Nick. I very much hope he stays around to enjoy having got this building open, and to reflect on it, because opening it is just the beginning.” She’s keen to get the institution’s thinking back from the building to the art, and talks about how necessary it is for Tate to keep abreast of where artists are going, to be alert to what is on the horizon. “I am sure that for the collection, the next big challenge is going to be digital. In the 19th century we didn’t buy photography. It took us over 100 years to catch up. Let’s not be in that position again.”

It has been a bit of a bad joke at British museums that they are so often dominated, at senior level, by experienced middle-aged women who never actually get the chance to run the show. Morris’s appointment is a welcome reversal of this pattern, and a popular appointment: she radiates warmth, takes a no-nonsense approach, and does not (much) shroud her sentences in bewildering art-speak. For the past decade, she has been devoted to building up the Tate’s international collections of modern and contemporary art, and has also been the curator of, during the past decade, a trio of important exhibitions of women artists: Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama and Agnes Martin. This rebalancing towards work by women has become an increasing priority for Morris, along with shifting the gaze of the institution away from just Europe and the US, towards Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Her feminist drive “began to grow significantly when I started working with the collection a decade ago; I realised what a deficit [of work by women] there was. And then I was in a position to do something about it. I encourage colleagues to dig a little more when they see interesting work by a woman artist they haven’t heard of before, or to be aware of where women have been overlooked. Sonia Delaunay [the subject of a show at Tate Modern last year] is a case in point. For years people had been saying, ‘Let’s do a Sonia Delaunay show,’ but the feeling would be, ‘Oh no, the work isn’t strong enough.’ Well, what on earth did that mean? The work was unbelievably strong and diverse – but nobody actually knew its full extent.’”

Morris with overall Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota as he lays the final brick of the new Tate Modern extension in February.
Morris with overall Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota as he lays the final brick of the new Tate Modern extension in February. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

Morris takes me through the extension, officially named the Switch House; the existing galleries are renamed as the Boiler House, with the Turbine Hall running between them. The place is in a limbo between belonging to the builders and to the art: a big contractors’ office is full of men in hi-vis jackets, scaffolding is coming down, there are snatches of eastern European languages in the clanking service lifts and signs to multi-faith prayer rooms. We head to the terrace at the top of the building, the 10th floor, and admire the view – St Paul’s spreads itself out before us, and new towers poke up insolently on every side. A couple of levels down she shows me a room that will become the home of something called Tate Exchange, which will launch in September. Each year an artist, initially Tim Etchells, will set the tone in thinking about “big questions”, according to Morris. “How does art impact on society? What is art’s use value? As a public institution with a collection in public ownership, when public space is diminishing, we need to think about who we reach, what impact we have, how could we do things better – all those questions that people write government white papers about.”

Down we go to the second floor, the biggest space in the Boiler House, already with art in situ: sculpture from the 1960s to the present, many of the works referencing architecture in one way or another, from Carl Andre’s arrangement of bricks, Equivalent VIII, to Tony Cragg’s neat cube built from street detritus and repurposed building materials. Here too are works by the German Charlotte Posenenske, by the Brazilians Lygia Clark and Jac Leirner, the Britons Mary Martin and Rachel Whiteread, and Venezuela’s Gego. Morris grows animated: here is where she is happiest, enthusing about the art, explaining to me how Cragg’s sculpture of scavengings relates to Thatcher’s Britain, and how Whiteread’s casts of mattresses, laid neatly on the floor like a classic piece of minimalism, bear the imprints of human bodies. When I say that I once saw a retrospective in Argentina of delicate, quivering wire sculptures by Gego (AKA Gertrud Goldschmidt, who was born in 1912), she says: “Brilliant! And didn’t it just make you tingle?”

‘I would love to think that Tate Modern could not only be the world’s most popular modern art museum, but one of the best local museums in the country’ … Morris was born in south-east London.
‘I would love to think that Tate Modern could not only be the world’s most popular modern art museum, but one of the best local museums in the country’ … Morris was born in south-east London. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Back in the office, Morris tells me what made her go for the job. “The penny dropped about 18 months ago that I was anxious to move into a different gear. I love doing exhibitions, adore them – apart from doing the deep research, it’s about being in the galleries, seeing how people respond … and perhaps it’s to do with getting older, but all those things that I believe in really strongly – the importance of art in education, access to art, state education, dare I say it – I wanted to have an opportunity to be part of those. These are things that really matter to me, that define my life.” What will be the animating principles of her Tate Modern? “It will be both a much more international programme and one that reflects the composition of the city we live in … It’s a public collection, and I’m an old-fashioned public servant, but I am super-serving a certain type of public at the moment.” Meaning? “We don’t have an audience that reflects the communities or economic groups that live within our vicinity. The fantastic opportunity with this new building is that we are a gateway to south London now. Growing up in south London, I had the National Maritime Museum at the end of my street, and that had a huge impact on my life. If it rained I went to the museum, and I had fantastic experiences, really deep early experiences. I would love to think that Tate Modern could not only be the world’s most popular contemporary and modern art museum, but one of the best local museums in the country.”

The super-rich international collectors who buzz around the top end of the artworld, and whom people like Morris are required to court for gifts of art and money, seem very distant from the life of, say, a Peckham teenager. Is there a tension? This is territory, she says, that “you navigate with a strong moral compass. We are very aware of those extremes, and in a way we occupy the gulf between them. We have an amazing opportunity to negotiate an exchange between those wealthy individuals who collect art, who love art and rather remarkably are willing to give us support; and another group of people who don’t have resources themselves, but who can access resources through Tate.” According to that “strong moral compass”, I wonder where she believes the limits lie in Tate’s association with certain individuals and brands. It is, after all, notoriously the case that corporations and people can rinse troubling reputations in the purifying waters of culture.

An artist’s impression of inside the Switch House, due to open on 17 June.
An artist’s impression of inside the Switch House, due to open on 17 June. Photograph: Hayes Davidson and Herzog & de Meuron

What about the now-ended BP sponsorship of Tate, for example? And would all Tate’s high-net-worth donors stand utterly innocent of the kind of tax arrangements that have been brought into relief by the Panama Papers leaks? “BP has been a wonderful funder-supporter of Tate and what we have done with BP sponsorship we could not have done without it,” she says dutifully. Where are the limits? I ask. There is, she says, a Tate ethics committee, to whose opinion she defers on tricky questions. She adds: “We have to be careful not to let personal prejudice or sentiment get in the way of fundraising for public benefit. Within the framework of legality it is very difficult for a public institution to say, ‘I don’t like this person, I don’t like this company.’” You were talking about a moral compass a moment ago, I point out, and now a legal framework: are they the same? “You’re putting me on the spot, but you know exactly what I mean.” Er, not really. “As an individual I can choose not to support something, but as an institution, because we hold the collection in trust for the nation, and if we didn’t fundraise we couldn’t survive, we don’t have the luxury sometimes to say we don’t want to be associated with that company or that brand.”

Had she been writing the government’s white paper on culture (published a couple of weeks ago, to not much acclaim), what would she have included? “Come back to me in three years,” she says. Come on Frances, I say, that’s a cop-out. “I am coming from back-of-house to front-of-house and I’ve been doing it for three days,” she says. Yes, and you’re also a highly experienced figure in the cultural world. Pressed, she comes out fighting. “Education: that’s the most important thing that wasn’t there. It has to be central. If we don’t have a proper visual arts education, all the other things that we are told to do, like diversification of our audience, will never happen. We won’t have a diverse community of curators; we won’t have a gloriously diverse cohort of students at art schools. At the moment, our audience has for the most part received some sort of visual art education. It is a scary idea that over the next 10, 20 years, as young people encounter museums for the first time, they won’t have had that – apart from the ones that go to very privileged private schools. And I think that is really tragic.”

• Tate Modern’s extension, the Switch House, opens on 17 June.

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