Nicholas Serota

Nicholas Serota
Nicholas Serota

Sir Nicholas Andrew Serota (born 27 April 1946)[1] is a British art curator. Serota was director of the Whitechapel Gallery,[2] London, and The Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, before becoming director of the Tate, the United Kingdom's national gallery of modern and British art in 1988. He was awarded a knighthood in 1999.[3] He has been the chairman of the Turner Prize jury. He was the driving force behind the creation of Tate Modern, which opened in 2000.


Early life

Nicholas Serota, the son of Stanley and Beatrice Serota, grew up in Hampstead, North London. His father was a civil engineer and his mother a civil servant, later a life peer and Labour Minister for Health in Harold Wilson's government and local government ombudsman. Serota was educated at Haberdashers' Aske's School and then read Economics at the University of Cambridge (Christ's), before switching to History of Art. He completed a Masters degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, under the supervision of Michael Kitson and Anita Brookner; his thesis was on the work of J. M. W. Turner.

In 1969, Serota became Chairman of the new Young Friends of the Tate organisation with a membership of 750. They took over a building in Pear Place, south of Waterloo Bridge, arranging lectures and Saturday painting classes for local children. The Young Friends staged their own shows and applied for an Arts Council grant, but were asked to desist by the Tate Chairman and Trustees, who were concerned with the appearance of official backing for these ventures. Serota and his committee resigned, which caused the end of the Young Friends, whose accommodation was taken over for rehearsals by the National Theatre.[4]

In 1970, he joined the Arts Council of Great Britain's Visual Arts Department as a regional exhibitions officer, and in 1973 he was made Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (now Modern Art Oxford. There he organised an important early exhibition of work by Joseph Beuys and formed an important working relationship with Alexander "Sandy" Nairne, who would work with Serota at various points in the following years.

Whitechapel directorship

Whitechapel Gallery

In 1976, Serota was appointed Director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London's East End. The Whitechapel was well regarded but had suffered from lack of resources. Serota assembled at the Whitechapel a staff including Jenni Lomax (later Director of the Camden Arts Centre) and Mark Francis (later of Gagosian Gallery) and Sheena Wagstaff (later Chief Curator of Tate Modern), and organised influential exhibitions of Carl Andre, Eva Hesse and Gerhard Richter as well as early exhibitions of then emerging artists such as Antony Gormley. In 1980, assisted by Alexander "Sandy" Nairne , he organised a two-part exhibition of 20th Century British Sculpture, on a scale which had not been seen in the UK before. In 1981 he curated 'The New Spirit in Painting', with Norman Rosenthal and Christos Joachimides for the Royal Academy.

The shows, where Serota was helped by his very capable administrator Loveday Shewell, often received adverse reviews in the press, which reacted with an instinctive dislike for contemporary avant-garde art. Thus Serota remained somewhat distanced from the English establishment, although developing a growing reputation internationally in the art world.[5]

In 1984-1985, Serota took the bold step of shutting down the Whitechapel for over 12 months for extensive refurbishment. A strip of land had been acquired, which allowed a design by architects Colquhoun and Miller for a first-floor gallery, restaurant, lecture theatre and other rooms.[5] Although receiving wide approbation, the scheme was in deficit by £250,000. In 1987, Serota raised £1.4m in an auction of work, which he had asked artists to donate, thus not only paying off the debt, but creating an endowment fund to allow future exhibitions of more unconventional work, unlikely to attract a commercial sponsor. The success of this was instrumental in Serota's appointment in 1988 as Director of the Tate Gallery.[5]

Tate directorship

Tate Britain, previously the Tate Gallery

The short-listed candidates for the Tate Directorship, who included Norman Rosenthal and Julian Spalding, were asked to prepare a seven-year scheme for the Tate. Serota's submission, on two sides of A4 paper, was titled "Grasping the Nettle". It analysed the various areas of Tate work and proposed future stratagems to deal with the imminent crisis caused by restricted government financial support, changing public sector management expectations and increasing art market prices. He saw many areas of the Tate's operations in need of overhaul, and concluded that the gallery was loved, but not respected enough.[5] Tate Chairman, Richard Rogers considered this by far the best proposal submitted.[5]

News of Serota's appointment as Tate Director was received enthusiastially by Howard Hodgkin, who wrote in The Sunday Times, "Nick Serota has enormous energy and demonstrated at the Whitechapel a tremendous sense of diplomacy. He is a passionate man, and indeed is quite unusual in this country in his commitment to modern painting and sculpture."[5] In contrast, Peter Fuller made a scathing attack in Modern Painters magazine, saying that Serota would be incapable, by temperament and ability, to maintain the Tate's historic collection.[5]

There was an interval of nine months before Serota took over at the Tate, during which time he was still employed by the Whitechapel Gallery and met monthly with the incumbent Tate Director, Alan Bowness, as well as arranging some informal study groups with the Tate Chairman, Richard Rogers. Serota's first Board meeting as Director was in September 1988, and one of his first activities—acknowledging the importance of artists' involvement for the success of the gallery—was an artists' party with a private viewing of the Late Picasso exhibition, which some artists had told him they had not had a chance to view properly.[5]

In January 1989, the Tate Chairmanship passed to Dennis Stevenson, who had become a Trustee three weeks after Serota assumed office, although initially rejected by Margaret Thatcher who disliked Stevenson's liberal views. She was won round by Tim Bell, former Chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, who had been contacted by Mark Weinberg at Serota's request. Stevenson delegated more authority to the Director for acquisitions, which he saw as personal value judgements, than had previously been the case, although trustees (particularly artist trustees) were expected to express their views. Serota worked with Stevenson to create an efficient organisation, including departmental demarcation, a monthly Management Board to review policy, and improved records with computerisation, as well as the appointment of a Deputy Director, former banker Francis Carnwarth, to renovate accounting, which was still being done by hand and failed to provide the Trustees with an annual breakdown.[5]

The Tate Gallery that Serota took over was in a perilous state.[citation needed] The UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had declared a policy that the arts would be subject to market forces. Although the Tate Gallery received a government grant, it was not enough to provide for major purchases, especially at a time when the art market was inflated, as it was in the late 1980s. Moreover, the Tate Gallery was in need of expansion, as the existing exhibition space could show only 10% of the collection. The opening of the Clore Wing (1987) and of affiliate galleries Tate Liverpool (1988) and Tate St Ives (1993) helped to alleviate the problem.

In 1989, Serota inaugurated a programme called 'New Displays' in which the central Duveen Galleries were restored and collection works were rotated. The Turner Prize was redefined as a showcase for emerging contemporary art (Serota was then chairman of the judging panel for the prize until 2007).

In 1992, he was offered the directorship of the New York Museum of Modern Art, but turned it down.[6]

Major expansion of the Tate Gallery had been seen as inevitable for two decades. In 1993, the creation of the National Lottery made it possible to anticipate the availability of major public funding for an enlarged Gallery. In 1995, Tate received £52 Million towards the conversion of the former Bankside Power Station to create Tate Modern. The final cost was £135 million; Serota managed to secure the funds to make up the shortfall from a range of private sources. Tate Modern opened in May 2000 and quickly became a major tourist fixture of London. As well as housing acclaimed new works by Louise Bourgeois and Anish Kapoor, the Gallery has also provided the base for successful exhibitions of Donald Judd, Picasso, Matisse and Edward Hopper.

On 21 November 2000, Serota gave the Dimbleby Lecture in London. He started it by telling of a 1987 Civil Service enquiry which ranked the pay of the Tate Gallery director with that of larger museums such as the National Gallery, because the former "has to deal with the very difficult problem of modern art."[7] He explained this:

For in spite of much greater public interest in all aspects of visual culture, including design and architecture, the challenge posed by contemporary art has not evaporated. We have only to recall the headlines for last year's Turner Prize. "Eminence without merit" (The Sunday Telegraph). "Tate trendies blow a raspberry" (Eastern Daily Press), and my favourite, "For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled bed threaten to make barbarians of us all" (The Daily Mail). Are these papers speaking the minds of their readers? I have no delusions. People may be attracted by the spectacle of new buildings, they may enjoy the social experience of visiting a museum, taking in the view, an espresso or glass of wine, purchasing a book or an artist designed t-shirt. Many are delighted to praise the museum, but remain deeply suspicious of the contents.[7]

In 1998, Serota conceived Operation Cobalt, the secret buyback of two of Tate's paintings by J. M. W. Turner that had been stolen from a German gallery in 1994. The paintings were recovered in 2000 and 2002, resulting in a profit of several million pounds for Tate.

He was knighted in the 1999 New Year Honours.[3][8][9]

He has been on the Board of Trustees of The Architecture Foundation.

In 2001, Stuart Pearson Wright, winner of that year's BP Portrait Award, said that Serota should be sacked, because of his advocacy of conceptual art and neglect of figurative painting.[10]

In November 2004, in an interview in The Art Newspaper, Charles Saatchi said that the previous year he had phoned Serota and offered to donate his entire £200m collection to the Tate, including key works by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and other Young British Artists, which the Tate was in need of but lacked funds to buy.[11] Saatchi said that he had been told by Serota in 2000 that planned extensions to Tate Modern would add 50% extra display capacity, but that this had been allocated by the time of his offer, necessitating its rejection.[11] Serota's spokeswoman said that Saatchi's suggestion was to "move displays of his collection from County Hall to the derelict 'oil tank' spaces at Tate Modern," (which could not be renovated without major expenditure) and that "At no point was there any suggestion that the collection was being offered as a gift to the Tate", nor was there any possibility that Serota had misunderstood the conversation.[11] Serota informed the Tate Chairman of the phone call, but some other trustees were unaware of it.[11]

Since its formation in 1999, the Stuckist art group has campaigned against Serota,[12] who is the subject of group's co-founder Charles Thomson's satirical painting Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision (2000), one of the best known Stuckist works.[13] He was dubbed the "least likely visitor" to The Stuckists Punk Victorian show at the Walker Art Gallery in 2004,[14] which included a wall of work satirising him and the Tate, including Thomson's painting.[15] In fact, he did visit and met the artists, describing the work as "lively".[16]

In 2005, the Stuckists offered 160 paintings from the Walker show as a donation to the Tate. Serota wrote to the Stuckists,[17] rejecting this on the grounds that the work was not of "sufficient quality in terms of accomplishment, innovation or originality of thought to warrant preservation in perpetuity in the national collection", and was accused of "snubbing one of Britain’s foremost collections".[17] The rejection galvanised the Stuckists into a media campaign over the Tate's purchase of its trustee Chris Ofili's work, The Upper Room.[18]

In September 2005, Serota wrote to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), assuring them that this purchase of a serving trustee's work was "exceptional" and had happened on only one other occasion.[19] David Lee, editor of The Jackdaw magazine, showed that the Tate had acquired work by six serving artist trustees. The Art Newspaper pointed out that work by every serving artist trustee had been acquired during Serota's tenure.[20]

In December 2005, Serota admitted that he had filled in with false information an application form to the Art Fund (NACF) for a £75,000 grant towards buying the work, stating that the Tate had made no commitment to purchase the work (a requirement of the grant), whereas they had in fact already paid a first instalment of £250,000 several months previously. He attributed this to "a failing in his head". The NACF allowed the Tate to keep the grant.[21]

In 2006, the Charity Commission ruled the Tate had broken charity law (but not the criminal law)[22] over the purchase and similar trustee purchases, including ones made before Serota's Directorship.[23] The Daily Telegraph called the verdict "one of the most serious indictments of the running of one of the nation's major cultural institutions in living memory."[22] In April 2008, Thomson started a petition on the Prime Minister's web site against Serota's Tate directorship.[24]

As part of a government campaign of openness, in July 2010 Serota's salary was revealed to the public as being up to £164,999 a year.[25]

Personal life

Serota's first wife was ballet dancer Angela Beveridge. They married in 1973 and had two daughters. Serota married his second wife, Teresa Gleadowe, in 1997.

Notes and references

  1. ^
  2. ^ "Is the new Whitechapel gallery a modern masterpiece?". The Independent (London). 3 April 2009. 
  3. ^ a b "Major leads honours list for peace", BBC, 31 December 1998. Retrieved 14 April 2007
  4. ^ Spalding, Frances (1998). The Tate: A History, pp. 150–151. Tate Gallery Publishing, London. ISBN 1 85437 231 9.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Spalding, Frances (1998). The Tate: A History, pp. 245–252. Tate Gallery Publishing, London. ISBN 1 85437 231 9.
  6. ^ Golman, Andrew. "Hey! What's the Big Deal at MoMA?", The New York Observer, 4 June 2000. Retrieved 3 May 2008.
  7. ^ a b Serota, Sir Nicholas. "The Dimbleby lecture 2000: Who's Afraid of Modern Art", BBC, 6 March 2001. Retrieved from, 8 July 2008.
  8. ^ London Gazette: no. 55354. pp. 1–2. December 30, 1998. Retrieved 2008-12-05.
  9. ^ London Gazette: no. 55610. pp. 9843–9844. September 14, 1999. Retrieved 2008-12-05.
  10. ^ "Winning artist slams Tate director", BBC, 20 June 2001. Retrieved 8 July 2008.
  11. ^ a b c d Barkham, Patrick. "It may be art. But is it really a gift?", The Guardian, 29 November 2004. Retrieved 8 July 2008.
  12. ^ Cassidy, Sarah. "Stuckists, scourge of BritArt, put on their own exhibition", The Independent, 23 August 2006. Retrieved 6 July 2008.
  13. ^ Cripps, Charlotte. "Visual arts: Saying knickers to Sir Nicholas, The Independent, 7 September 2004. Retrieved from, 7 April 2008.
  14. ^ Wright, Michael. "Culture: Agenda", The Sunday Times, 18 January 2004. Retrieved 7 July 2008.
  15. ^ Taylor, John Russell. "Lord have Mersey", The Times, 29 September 2004. Retrieved 22 March 2008.
  16. ^ Pia, Simon. "Simon Pia's Diary: Now the Stuckists are on the move", The Scotsman, p.22, 22 September 2004. Retrieved from newsuk, 15 March 2008.
  17. ^ a b Alberge, Dalya. "Tate rejects £500,000 gift from 'unoriginal' Stuckists", The Times, 28 July 2005. Retrieved 1 February 2008.
  18. ^ "How Ageing Art Punks Got Stuck into Tate's Serota", The Observer, December 11, 2005 Retrieved 1 February 2008
  19. ^ "Tate Disregarded Official Advice in Buying Trustee Art" The Times, November 19, 2005 Retrieved March 23, 2006
  20. ^ Bailey, Martin. The Art Newspaper, no. 164, December 2005, p. 19.
  21. ^ "Tate Broke Own Rules on Ofili Buy" The Sunday Telegraph, December 18, 2006 Retrieved March 23, 2006
  22. ^ a b Reynolds, Nigel. "Tate broke charity laws by buying art from its trustees", The Daily Telegraph, 21 July 2006. Retrieved 22 April 2008.
  23. ^ Higgins, Charlotte. "How the Tate broke the law in buying a £600,000 Ofili work", The Guardian, 19 July 2006. Retrieved 1 February 2008
  24. ^ Duff Oliver, "Blades out for Serota in petition to No 10", The Independent, 24 April 2008. Retrieved 3 May 2008.
  25. ^ "Quango chiefs' salaries revealed". BBC News. 2 July 2010. Retrieved 2 July 2010. 

External links

Cultural offices
Preceded by
Alan Bowness
Director of the Tate Gallery

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