Maria Balshaw: What’s A Great Contemporary Art Museum Without A Living Shaman




When Maria Balshaw takes over from Sir Nicolas Serota at Tate (not yet officially confirmed as I write this, but a racing certainty), she takes over an empire that seems to be in excellent health. The new extension to Tate Modern has been a resounding popular success, and the Tate brand is recognised as a major force, not only here in Britain, but throughout the art world.

By Edward Lucie-Smith

Ms. Balshaw is extremely well qualified to take over. She has been director of the Whitworth in Manchester since 2006 and has been responsible for a major redevelopment of the gallery. The Whitworth won the museum of the year prize in 2015. In 2011 Balshaw additionally took on the directorship of Manchester City Galleries. More recently, she became director of culture for Manchester city council, and in 2014 she became a member of the board of the Arts Council, having previously worked as director of development and external relations at Arts Council, West Midlands. She has been heavily involved in the creation of The Factory, an arts venue planned for the former site of the Granada TV studios. She is, in addition to all this, a board member of the charity set up to run the Art-Deco Rothesay Pavilion on the Isle of Bute, which is currently undergoing a major revamp.

She has a doctorate from the University of Sussex on African-American visual and literary culture, and has been a research fellow is urban culture at the University of Birmingham and a lecturer in cultural studies at University College Northampton.

In other words, how could Tate possibly think of choosing anybody else? She is a bang-up-to-the-minute contemporary art pluralist, on the model of Serota himself. And she has hands-on experience with the way that this sort of thing does – and maybe sometimes doesn’t (think of the current crisis at Walsall) – work outside of London, which her predecessor didn’t possess. Tate now aims to be a GB-wide brand, not just largely a London one.

“The incoming Queen of Tate is going to have to mediate between these two situations, which are often, though not invariably, in conflict”

Balshaw has form in areas of particular interest to Tate Modern in its new, hugely expanded guise. For example, she is on record as a supporter of that fast-growing wonder-child, performance art. At the Whitworth, as long ago as 2009, Marina Abramovic, not then quite the global celebrity she has since become, was responsible for:

“A four-hour “durational” work that saw the Whitworth stripped of its artworks and replaced with fourteen of the world’s leading performance artists. As an experience, it was little short of epic: visitors were first “de-programmed” by Abramovic (in a session that saw the audience donning white coats, engaging in primal screaming and staring at strangers), before being released to spend hours wandering the bare-walled galleries, encountering the artists Abramovic had handpicked to perform there.”[1]

Coming soon to fusty old London, one would think. It’s high time we caught up with the provinces where this genre of artistic practice is concerned. What’s a great contemporary art museum today without a living shaman, or even two, on its director’s speed-dial? Beuys is indeed well represented at Tate Modern, but he, alas, is dead. All we have is a heap of leftover objects, which may or may not have retained their meaning without his inspiring presence. Perhaps the solution is to create a post for a resident juju person, available all opening hours, buy a ticket for your spell or incantation at the Tate Modern bookstore.

There are some traps that I can see awaiting the new director of Tate. One, particularly applicable to the situation in British art, and therefore to Tate Britain, is the tendency for the separation between artist trustees and artists being purchased for the collection to become blurred. The Jackdaw, that perennial thorn in the side of the British contemporary art establishment, has just re-published an article that first appeared in its December/January issue of 2006, now with some additional material.  The article was prompted by the scandal aroused by Tate’s purchase of Chris Ofili’s Upper Room, during the period, from 2000 to 2005, when Ofili was himself a trustee.

Despite Tate’s denials on the subject, The Jackdaw established that there had in fact been quite numerous purchases from trustee artists, often while they were in office, and that the galleries representing these artists were a very small clique – Interim Art, the Victoria Miro Gallery, and Lisson. Just seven artists were listed as beneficiaries of this cozy situation  – one common factor being, perhaps, that, while all are well known, not all of them were at the very top of the price scale – the exceptions, perhaps, being Peter Doig and Ofili – though Tate, having burned its fingers, hasn’t bought anything by Ofili since 2006. Acquisition from most of the others has cheerfully continued. Gillian Wearing, for example, represented in 2006 by 19 works in the Tate collection, is now there with no less than 33, nearly double the number.

The Jackdaw points out that one of these 33 items by Wearing is an editioned work that can also be found in identical form in the Arts Council Collection, the British Council Collection, and the Government Art Collection. Tate art/State art? Yes, of course.

It’s perhaps from embarrassment about this situation and its inevitable repercussions that Tate has in recent years extended such an enthusiastic embrace to two highly fashionable but safely ephemeral forms: performance and installation. Though Tate, after a pause, did recently buy Mark Wallinger’s huge 2007 Turner Prize-winning installation, directly copied from the work of the now-deceased peace activist Brian Haw. Posterity may or may not be grateful that it has been safely preserved.

Tate Britain and its purchasing policies offer concrete proof that there now exists in Britain an ‘official avant-garde’. The very phrase is an oxymoron. What’s the new director going to do about that? Send for a squad of certified shamans and shamanesses to exorcise all traces of bureaucracy allied to gentility, things allied to cliques of jurors and advisers, who are guided in their turn by nameless elite groups of people who supposedly know what’s what? But then, again, where can necessary certification of a newly imported regiment of sacred persons come from, if not from the bureaucracy of Tate itself?
Another problem is in a way more consequential and can be more brutally and simply expressed. This is the increasing tension between what one may describe as ‘museum contemporary’ and ‘art fair and art auction contemporary’. The incoming Queen of Tate is going to have to mediate between these two situations, which are often, though not invariably, in conflict.

Artworks bought and sold at high prices, have become investment vehicles, in a market that is less regulated than the market of stocks and shares.

Museums cannot usually afford to buy at this level, but the public that museums cater for has a hunger to see art of this big-ticket kind. The prices, much publicised, add a romantic aura of their own. And of course what a museum chooses to exhibit is certified: certified as being of real cultural, intellectual and aesthetic value. Good reason why some possessors are willing to lend. Sometimes, indeed, the item in question is thereby certified as being genuine – the real thing. And the public, part of it, is not entirely innocent. Some at least come through the doors to look hungrily at the money. “Oh yes – there’s a Picasso that made over £10 million at auction. Would I keep it or sell it, if it was mine?”

Yet what the incoming director of Tate is going to have to wrestle with, most of all, is not this dilemma: relationships with the rich, inevitable ceremonies of unholy matrimony, brazenly conducted in the institutions she controls. Even more, than this, the struggle will be with long established British Puritanism, the need to look virtuous while supporting the latest in art. Ephemeral forms of art, art from minority groups, art that pleads the case for ethnic expression, art supporting what everybody who is likely to come through the door will agree is a worthy cause: there’s been a lot of that in the various Tates recently. And a lot too little that looked really radical and new.

[1] Quoted from the site www.creativetourist.com


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