Under the banner “Art Changes, We Change”, the press conference of the “New” Tate Modern took place on 14 June 2016. It opens to the general public on Friday 17 June. Nick Serota, Director, was keen to emphasise how the new extension to Tate Modern, the Switch House building by Herzog and Meuron, above the Tanks, had enabled the Tate to show more contemporary art in installation, photography, performance and new media. He was “upstaged” by Sadiq Khan, London’s new Mayor, who pointed out that, with culture at the heart of his new agenda for London, he was pleased to see a significantly greater representation of women artists in the new building. This allowed Frances Morris, the new Director of Tate Modern, to open a conversation about the fact that 50% of works selected for the new building displays were by women artists and that 17% of the contemporary art collection has been produced by women artists. This comment about the representation of women artists would not have been possible without Sadiq Khan, given the emphasis within the official press release which studiously avoided mentioning this fact as any change of direction in Tate’s work. Nick Serota, who is well known for his statements about “quality” being the only issue in art and his lack of interest in any woman artist’s work, kept his silence on this point. This shift in Tate policy will most likely be met with silence by the UK and international media who are much more likely to comment on the brickwork and the light-filled spaces than the works contained in it and hope by not commenting that it will be an abherration, a one-off. This silence is why I decided to write this post!
The Tate does not have a proud record with regard to showing women artists under Nick Serota’s Directorship. In total, 7% of the collection is by women artists – a mixture of historical neglect and persistent marginalisation under many directors. Until the 1980s, only a handful of retrospectives of women artists had been mounted in its history. Nick Serota did nothing to change this, nor has he ever agreed to any feminist programming of a group show of woman artists. The rare event of a woman artist-only shortlist for the Turner prize has been his only concession. While we are seeing significant changes in policy in the last two years with solo shows of Marlene Dumas, Mona Hatoum and Georgia O’Keefe, the Tate overall has a long way to go to rectify the balance – in historical programming of the main exhibitions displays where women artists have barely increased in visibility from old norms of 1 in 50 to 1 in 10 and only in “contemporary art” approaching 1 in 5 of artworks shown. Issue-based work and political protest remains marginal at best in the Tate’s agenda.
Perhaps the Tate is finally responding to significant shifts in programming and display of women artists internationally by other Museums of modern and contemporary art over the last 10 years: e.g. Moderna Museet’s programme ‘Museum of our Wishes’; Elles@Centres Pompidou whose rehang led to new acquisitions of women artists and increased the percentage of women in the collection to 20%; and MoMA’s shift in programming and display of women artists. These are belated but important responses to the considerable scholarship on women artists produced in the last 50 years by feminist art historians, critics and curators. It is significant that it is only with more exhibition space that the Tate can rethink its neglect of women artists and it does so in order to maintain its international reputation and “modernise” it.
So, what is in the new Tate Modern – a room dedicated to Louise Bourgeois; a room displaying Suzanne Lacy’s Crystal Quilt (formerly badly sited in the Tanks); a room for Mary Kelly, Kay Hunt and Margaret Harrison’s Women and Work; Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm O, and a room dedicated to Ana Lupas. The largest first floor room dedicated to abstract sculpture now situates Gego near Mary Martin and Rasheed Araeen; Cristina Iglesias next to Tony Cragg and Eva Hesse; Lynda Benglis next to Bruce Nauman. Work by Barbara Hepworth from the 1950s is notably absent, in spite of their collection of her work. This recovery of mainstream European and American women artists may be significant as a new departure for Tate Modern but it is still very calculated and conservative. Although the new Tate Modern boasts artists from 50 countries, very few women from outside the Euro-American mainstream are ever on display, even in its revision of Latin American Art. Ruth Noack’s curation of documenta 12 in 2007 had much earlier made the same achievement with a much broader cross-section of artists. Maybe it would be more accurate to describe the shift that has taken place as a displacement from the Waddington/D’Offay/Lisson Gallery system, so favoured by Serota, in which women were only ever 1 in 10, towards Hauser and Wirth/Elisabeth Sackler schools of thought today and this has to be because of their direct financial support alongside the many collectors who invested in the new building.
There is a strange “historicism” which this rehang demonstrates because it is a “historical” reviewing of the past largely from the 1970s, 1980s with a jump to the 2010s. It is not a reflection how how “Art” has changed, this was the art produced and shown “at the time”, but also marginalised “at that time”. It is only the Tate’s projected “interpretation of Art” which has shifted, if its thematic approaches to display are about to incorporate any notion of gender balance. Let me be clear: there is no revisiting of feminist legacies here, just the reinstatement of “great women artists” and “significant works”, that it is no longer possible to overlook because to do so would be to persist in pure ignorance of international changes. The Tate still has a long way to go to establish a fuller recognition of women artists in its “global vision” of contemporary art: as well as contributing to a substantial historical revisionism of the 20th and 21st centuries with regard to any form of gender parity. Welcome as this shift is, there is still much more feminist work to do!