Interview with Frances Morris

Tate Modern’s director discusses Brexit, the role of the museum and collecting the uncollectable

By J.J. Charlesworth

Frances Morris was appointed director of Tate Modern at the beginning of 2016, after two decades working at Tate. The following June, Tate Modern opened its major new extension, the Blavatnik Building, a week before the UK’s referendum on EU membership. One year on, J.J. Charlesworth talks to Morris about the effects of the vote to leave, the role of the contemporary art museum and where Tate Modern positions itself between the local and the global...

ArtReview You were appointed in January last year. You have been a curator, and exhibitions and collections director a great part of your career. I wondered how directing the whole of Tate Modern has been different to your previous experience.

Frances Morris It has been exhilarating, even though I’ve been here for a long time. The shift of gear was almost overnight, because I was offered the job and was in-post six or seven weeks later. I hit the ground running at a time of incredible pace change, just weeks before we opened the Blavatnik Building. I had been involved in the project, to a degree, working on the display of the collection, but the building was in some ways new to me. I had to respond to many facets of it – its operations, its wayfinding, its services, its appearance, its acoustics, its lighting, all the technical aspects – very quickly. But I loved all of that problem solving. One of the frustrations of my role as a curator and, latterly, director of the collection, was not to be able to do what I was doing in the context of the bigger picture. People talk about silos as if they’re self-imposed but they’re also imposed. We’re a complex organisation and the borders between departments are many, so I love the feeling that I can be part of orchestrating it. It’s not clear, and it’s not straightforward, because it is a complicated place.

Over a year, I think there’s been a shake up in the way Tate Modern functions and the way we work together. We have enabled each other to work more closely together. Having Tate Exchange [a new collaborative programme between Tate, other organisations and individuals, producing projects and events using art to address wider social and cultural issues] has really helped that.

AR So, the new building opened up, first of all, physical space, but allowed for a different type of activity?

FM The vision for the new building was about realising the potential of this broad, international, and re-gendered collection, and about opening up to live art, but it also involved a rethinking of the purpose of the museum. At the heart of that was the notion of Tate Exchange, and I think we have been moving towards that in the year since.

AR Tate Exchange is a key element in this new vision, then?

FM Yes, because it’s not just a programme, it’s a way of working. For the first time, we have a significant part of the building which is programmed collaboratively with associates who both work with us, but also take over the space and bring their audiences into the museum. In terms of the UK, it activates the idea of cultural networking which underpins the way we’re rethinking art history. That’s what makes Brexit so ironic, because just at the moment we’re realising the potential of that networking – that you can put people in contact, based on sharing, trust, and collaboration, and great things can happen – it might start becoming more difficult.

just at the moment we’re realising the potential of that networking – that you can put people in contact, based on sharing, trust, and collaboration – it might start becoming more difficult

AR To come back to the audience for that part of Tate’s activity; is that still going to be a relatively national one, in terms of the engagement and participation of certain publics and audiences?

FM In terms of physical access, yes, because at the moment Tate Exchange takes place in our building and in the associates’ buildings. But it would be interesting to think about how you have digital or virtual relationships that manifest themselves physically in two different parts of the world, or five different parts of the world. We’ve trialled that over the years; ‘turbinegeneration’, for example, was a learning programme that worked almost exclusively digitally, but the physical manifestation was global. I think that kind of virtual contact will be the big thing that changes over the next few years. What’s really working is the collaboration, particularly with much smaller organisations. That ability to be the big institution that shares its space, or invites takeover, is bringing individuals into the organisation who wouldn’t otherwise be drawn across our threshold.

AR These aren’t always museums, gallery institutions or organisations…

FM Yes. For example, the University of the Arts has done significant projects with us, and their networks included young people from South London who would not have come to the gallery otherwise. The invitation is to come and use the resource of Tate and think about how the collection relates to you. People are making connections and asking questions. The projects that have seemed to me to work best are when groups have engaged with the collection in different ways. That’s often brought people in who don’t even know there is a national collection.

AR Picking up on the point about the reality of Brexit in the last year, the new building opened just as that happened; what were your biggest apprehensions about what might take place? Have your opinions changed twelve months on?

What Brexit has brought home to me is the psychological impact on a part of a community that we thought was seamless with our own

FM Well, as an institution we’ve thought about the implications of Brexit for us, as a national museum, as part of a sector, and as part of the ecology of cultural provision in the UK. What the last year has brought home to me is the psychological impact on a part of a community that we thought was seamless with our own. It’s having a damaging and depressing impact on people who regarded the UK as their home but, in fact, their presence here is now in question. Their creative lives and their contribution here is under threat. So, 14% of our staff are European. Two Tate directors are from Europe: the artistic director of Tate Liverpool, and the managing director of Tate. Some of my team are from Europe. Many of our catering staff are European. Those people are crucial to the delivery of what we do, and not just because they’re individuals, but because they bring expertise and a sense of who we are in the world. I think there is an analogy with football: you can’t be a world-class football team without drawing on talent from overseas. We can’t be a world-class museum without that input.

I think there’s been a fall-off in applications from professional staff from Europe. Take our conservation staff, for example. Tate Modern in particular has a huge investment in time-based media and photography, but you can’t become a time-based media or photography conservator in the UK. We don’t have those training courses. Art history is under threat in this country. We have to look to Europe. We have an international collection. So, I worry about how we sustain our expertise, but it’s also about the ethos. It’s about Wolfgang Tillmans being a British artist. It’s about Tacita Dean, who lives in Berlin, being a European artist. I think it’s extraordinary to feel that we’re losing this kind of porousness when it’s been such a generator of creativity.

AR It was noticeable that the initial response to Brexit from the cultural sector was over legal, funding and administrative issues. However, it has taken time for a more cultural response to come out of this. I wanted to ask you about how an international institution like Tate Modern works in a period where questions of cultural relations are in flux. You started your career at a time when the British art world was more insular. In the intervening period, certainly in the last fifteen years, the issue of globalised institutions, and globalisation’s effects on culture and cultural identity have come to the fore. Do issues of national culture and national perspectives on identity and culture become something that Tate Modern addresses itself to, or is that something for Tate Britain?

FM I think the national/international thing is a subject for all Tates; we have different perspectives on the same material, but I think we are in dialogue. It’s interesting that you talk about the ’80s and ’90s being a focus for national thinking. Actually, that was the moment for some of us in the art world when we were becoming more aware of national scenes in other parts of the world. I think it was at that moment when, from my perspective, I began to focus on the margins, London being a margin as well. The centre of gravity of visual arts culture always seemed to be Western Europe and North America, with Britain sitting between those two on a margin. It would be interesting to be part of a community of margins that began to demonstrate a more cosmopolitan, global network of cultures. That’s the model that, in a way, I've followed ever since. So, the question for me, now, is how can we remain connected in a post-Brexit world? I think we need to do everything we can to encourage the preconditions of networks, which lie in friendship, and goodwill, and openness, and communication.

It would be interesting to be part of a community of margins that began to demonstrate a more cosmopolitan, global network of cultures

My worry at the moment is that we’re having to work quite hard to persuade our friends abroad that they do have our goodwill, and that we want to stay close to them. What Britain is doing is unpicking long-term established relationships with partners, and friends, and colleagues, and we need to demonstrate to them that we care about those relationships still.

AR Tate Modern is an international museum, and the two decades has brought home the effects of a globalising economy, and a global system of networks and contacts which allows for communication and exchange beyond a particular continental, regional area. Are there other prospects that might be opened up when it comes to developing relationships, and contacts, exchanges, and partnerships with other regions in the world? for example, Asia or Latin America...

FM Yes, Asia’s important, so is Latin America. You know, if you take the long view, Paris in the 1950s, for example, was a great interchange station between those parts of the world and America, the Middle East and Britain. That’s the period I love more than any other in art history. There you have, in a nutshell, what we’re talking about – Paris was the centre of international networks. It linked Rio to New York to Beirut to Istanbul… You cannot think about Ellsworth Kelly without understanding the presence of Latin American art in Paris after the Second World War. We’re working with that legacy and manifesting the roots of that connectedness. So, it’s not about Europe or the rest of the world, it’s about Europe in the rest of the world. It’s a not a geopolitical thing, it’s a cultural thing. Those cultural networks transcend the political, or economic, or legal borders that you’re talking about. We just have to, as an institution, therefore, not be bound by those new borders.

AR What are your ambitions for Tate Modern in the next decade? Do you see changes coming from particular or directions, or out of certain pressures or dynamics?

FM To start with the pressures; we’re reliant not only on the curatorial community and institutional networks, but also on the funding networks. They are very international, and many of those individuals are born in different parts of the world and make their homes here. Many of them are connected with London being a financial ‘capital’ of Europe. They feel connected to the mission and vision of Tate being an international hub. I worry about their allegiance if we can’t continue to make them feel welcome here. What they do for us is of huge public benefit. The vision is that we can be both a great international institution, and yet also have a very local footprint. Be a place where, through Tate Exchange and through what we do with the landscape around the building, the kids in Southwark and Lambeth want to come and hang out, whether it’s on a Friday night or on a Saturday morning. Lots of things we do over the next few years will hopefully make that happen. I hope those things aren’t threatened by any change in circumstances.

AR If we can plug in another bit of this, which is Plus Tate [the thirty-five public galleries and venues with which Tate collaborates to exchange resources and expertise]: that has a lot more to do with regional- and UK-based activity. How do you see that network developing, certainly in terms of some of the misgivings that are sometimes aired about other parts of England outside of London having voted against the EU. I was just reading details of the forthcoming Museums Association conference in November; there’s a session which, to quote the blurb, ‘will investigate how museums can expand deepen their relationship with the public in the context of a growing atmosphere of intolerance, mistrust, and division following last year’s Brexit vote’, asking ‘what roles museums play in healing some of society’s divisions’ – that’s a pretty big ambition for what the effect museums and cultural institutions can have...

FM Well, I suppose, yes, it is. I think museums can be public spaces where people feel comfortable and at home, and can do interesting and creative things. That’s an important role for them. It’s not just about telling. In a world where public space is diminishing, I think there is a role for museums to function in part as community centres. We should welcome that. I, as a child, always thought my museum was a playground, and we should be a playground as well. If that helps with healing communities, then so be it. We’re aware that, as a non-governmental public body, we don’t take a political position, but it wouldn’t be helpful for us to take a political position in the context of the UK now, where there are these sharp divisions. We are here to serve the community, all the community, so we don’t take a particular position. We have to be a place and a platform, and we learn a lot about that from our Plus Tate networks, whether it’s MIMA, where Alastair Hudson’s doing this incredible job with quite a disenfranchised local community, or whether it’s Turner Contemporary in Margate. It is useful for us to look at those colleagues, often in extremely restrained circumstances, doing granular work with individuals, and communities, and local schools, and complex communities.

In a world where public space is diminishing, I think there is a role for museums to function in part as community centres

I hope it’s useful for those networks, also, to benefit from the expertise that we bring as a larger organisation. So, I think we’re mutually dependent. Nobody comes into the public sector of the art world without believing that art is somehow good for you and that we want to share it with everybody. None of us quite understand how it’s good for you, or why it’s good for you, but we just know it is. Therefore, we need to work together on ways of encouraging access to it. Almost everyone I know who works in the visual arts, at every level, will have had some experience in their youth or childhood that changed their mind about what a museum could be, or what visual arts could do. I want people to be able to have that kind of experience, that epiphany.

AR By going back over the collection to develop it and to review where its weaknesses have been historically, there is, obviously, the possibility of developing an international collection that ends up like every other international collection. How do you see the issue of making the collection distinct, in a period when the drive is to make sure that one has a fair perspective for one’s audience of global modern art?

FM Well, actually, I don’t think we’re aiming for a fair perspective of global modern art. I don’t think anybody’s international collection will ever look like our international collection, because our collection has grown from a particular engagement with the world in London, and the perspective of people who live in the city, people who work in the city, artists who make art in the city and the UK. So, that’s, in a way, the centre of our network, and we’ve grown out from that by thinking, ‘We have this. What does it connect with?’ So, we have, for example, Giacometti. For us, he’s probably a much more major French artist than he might be for other museums because of the strong connections he had with London, and because of the artists in London who went to Paris. So, he’s the beginning of a network that then takes you in other directions. Ibrahim El-Salahi, the great Sudanese modernist, was at the Slade. So it’s not about creating a broad representation of everything that happened everywhere. It’s about focussing on the way you can actually connect people through physical and intellectual relationships across the world.

AR So its about having a more authentic view of history, which is in process of being unearthed?

FM Yes. So, you could (and I keep trying to ask the curators to do it!) do a cultural flowchart. The way our colleagues in Liverpool install the collection is called ‘constellations’. I love that. They take a work of art and demonstrate how it connects to disparate and close things. That’s the way we’re building the collection here. To give you an example, we’ve recently started acquiring Australian art with MCA in Sydney, with the support of Qantas. We’ve been acquiring work that makes sense for Tate’s collection, because they connect through thematic lines, or media, so we can demonstrate a network. Some of these works are by urban Aboriginal artists, and that’s begun to get us thinking more widely about indigeneity. It’s a kind of evolutionary process. One thing leads you to another. What we don’t do is pick something on the horizon and chase it.

AR You’ve had a big influence in developing the representation of women in the collection, and in internationalising the collection. Are there other issues and directions which you want to pursue?

Art is, as we speak, doing things that we can’t collect, and we need to find a way of collecting them

FM I’m committed to our agenda around overlooked female practices, and that will be a strong element of the exhibition programme and collection displays over the next few years. We also want to activate the collection, so in due course I hope that we could stage performance works from the collection more regularly. We want to find more ways of thinking digitally and address what that actually means for contemporary art. That may begin to change the way we show things, or we engage with people, or how we collect. We have this ambition to ‘collect the uncollectable’, which just means, don’t ever be confined to what you think your boundaries are. Art is, as we speak, doing things that we can’t collect, and we need to find a way of collecting them.

Actually, one of the other things that I know we’re doing is, ironically, committing to address European and British art. The last ten years have been a big story about building the international collection, but we’re aware that we need to also profile and think about our local heroes and heroines.

AR It’s possibly too big a question to cover here, but walking around the collection, I was struck by how much of what was on show was made after 1950. One big debate debate in art history at the moment has to do with how to define the period of ‘the contemporary’, about when the ‘contemporary’ starts, and whether it’s going to finish, and how much of the story which one experiences in this building is of what happens in art after, say, 1965. Some historians and critics argue that the current ‘contemporary’ period started around 1989, with the end of the Cold War. Is there as sense, maybe, that a period that started in the early 1990s may itself be becoming art history?

FM Yes, we are thinking about that. I wouldn’t call it a break, but it’s a paradigm shift. As you know, we’ve rehung the collection every five to seven years since we opened in 2000, and we will continue to do that. I think last year, when we opened the new Tate Modern, we felt that it was important to register the story from 1900 to now, which the Boiler House tells. So, there is a lot of pre-Second World War work, including a focus on surrealism and early abstraction. Then because of wanting to show and give a narrative to live art, participation and performance, the Blavatnik Building is focused on 1960 to now, when art became active. Tate Exchange then becomes an example of how the audience has come to the fore in the last 50 or 60 years. But the early part of the collection is still key, and we are building that collection still, particularly with photography. Over the next few years, our commitment to a more international view of the early modern period will become more apparent, so it doesn’t ossify as an obsolete European canon. It’s really alive, and it’s just as open to growth and reinterpretation for a new audience as any other part of the collection.

In a way, a little bit of that will be seen in the Egyptian surrealism exhibition coming up at Tate Liverpool. We’re not talking about a European history that then becomes a North American one, and then becomes global. The internationalism is there early on in the story. So, major exhibitions here will look at individuals and thematics in that early half of the twentieth century. One of the things that I would love when we do our next rehang is to bring back some of the early material that we couldn’t accommodate in this rehang. Every generation of curators want to discover something anew, but it’s certainly not the case that we’re going to shift to a post-’90s world. I think one of the most distinctive things that Tate Modern has brought the museum narrative is that we don’t make that division. You go to Pompidou or MoMA, they treat modern and contemporary as two different things. You have to change floors. We’ve never subscribed to that divide here, because they’re indivisible.