How do you cater to 6 million visitors a year?
Frances Morris in conversation with It’s Nice That
In March of this year, it was announced that the Tate Modern is the most visited attraction in the UK, with almost 5.9 million people flocking to the former power station in 2018. At its helm, residing in a rather understated office to the west of the building, is Frances Morris.
“Do you mind if I just send a couple of emails?” she asks, as I enter the room. With time to look around a bit, I notice a poster on the wall which reads “unity is strength” – it’s an apt addition to the office of someone who, since January 2016 has been director of an institution that prides itself on promoting public understanding and enjoyment of British, modern and contemporary art, providing a place where children can play, students can learn, and art critics can be inspired, all at the same time.
Frances, a state school-educated Cambridge grad, originally joined Tate as a curator in 1987 and, alongside Iwona Blazwick, was responsible for the curation of the Tate Modern’s initial collections when it opened in 2000. Together, they pioneered a non-chronological curatorial style which, while sniffed at by some in the art world at the time, is now largely seen as the norm. It’s work such as this, as well as her championing of female artists – notably Louise Bourgeois in 2007, Yayoi Kusama in 2012, and Agnes Martin in 2015 – which has seen Frances credited with solidifying the Tate Modern as one of the best modern art galleries in the world. No mean feat given it was the UK’s first when it opened.
INT I’m interested in how your career sprung up. Growing up in South London, were you always creative?
FMYes, like a lot of people who end up being curators, I probably started off thinking I was going to be an artist. I loved everything to do with creativity. My parents have both been to art school, so they were super supportive of my career path. I probably had more support in finger painting than anything else!
Then, as part of my A levels, there was an option to do art history. I had this great Miss Brodie-type teacher, who was just full of enthusiasm and I got very captivated by art history. I had one of those moments – a sudden dawning that, as much as I loved making art, I was never going to be Cézanne. I loved essay writing that I just thought, OK, that’s what I need to do.
INT It’s a familiar story, having that one teacher that spurs you on. You went onto Cambridge to do art history, what was that experience like?
FMCambridge was interesting… It was kind of weird because it was very Brideshead, you know, and I went from a huge cosmopolitan city and the busy New Cross Road to this incredibly beautiful cloistered environment. But actually, I was at Kings, which was quite a cool college. Even then, it had a fair few students from state schools and a high proportion of women. I got there at the end of the 1970s and in those days, you didn’t wear gowns at Kings. I felt like I was in a place which was all about breaking rules, even though the physical landscape and typography was very historical. I liked that – the idea that you could be radical in a centralised place, while also having respect for the beauty, majesty and the history of the environment.
During my first two years, I read history, and was taught by the great Professor Gareth Stedman Jones – he was pretty inspirational. Again, teachers are so important. I was so captivated by history, that I might have stayed with it but I knew I didn’t really want to be a historian.
“We knew that we would be really challenged. And we would be really challenging”
INTSo there was nearly a moment you strayed away from the art world?
FMThere was a moment in my second year where I thought I might stay with history and do standard PhD, be an academic, but I hated libraries. Art history, however, seemed like a subject I could do something practical with, and it seemed like a good bridge of my interests.
INTWhat kind of person were you at that time? What were you interested in?
FMI didn’t look swatty but I probably was, I mean, I worked really hard. I was very ambitious to do well academically. I had a curious social circle at Cambridge who were mostly, and I don’t really know how this happened, foreign students doing one or two-year MA’s and summer postgrads, and we lived in a shared house. I think I ran the history society or something. But I didn’t do any sports at all or anything like that, I much preferred talking and drinking and smoking cigarettes.
INTAnd so how did your career in curation actually begin?
FMWell, it was a bit random I would say. The first job I got actually was in TV. It was just a couple of years after the start of Channel Four and, suddenly, there was this mushrooming of very small, independent producers. There was a big building on the Farringdon Road, which had probably 40 or 50 tiny companies – two to a room – and I had a years work with Slick Pics International Inc – which was so not slick. It was run by a rather amazing producer, however, called Victor Schonfeld. I worked for him for a year being his go-to person until, basically, the company ran out of steam.
And so actually, my entry to the gallery world came completely by chance. At some point and, again, I don’t know why, I applied for a job at the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol. I didn’t go for my interview because I got this job in TV. But six months later, just as I was sitting down to try and find a new job, I got a phone call. The person that the Arnolfini appointed for the job had moved on after six months. (I didn’t know who it was at that stage, but it was Andrea Schlieker! What a strange world it is.) So they were going back to their original list of applicants, seeing if any were still available to interview rather than spending money on another round. And it all just fell into place.
I went up for the interview, I had to do some pretty intense swatting-up on cutting edge art because I was a little bit out of the loop at that stage. They didn’t ring me back but after about four days, I plucked up the courage to ring and spoke to the director. He said, “Oh, I didn’t think you’re very keen on contemporary art!” Anyway, they offered me the job and that was it.
INTHow did that role change your life?
FMAs soon I went down to Arnolfini and saw it, I was just like “oh, this is like the ICA but better!” It had video tech and the bar and the great auditorium, it was like paradise.
INTLooking back now, can you see there are things you learned then that you still use today?
FMI can’t think of anything I do today that I didn’t learn there. I painted the walls, I learned how to hang pictures. Today, whenever I think about exhibitions, right at the start, I think about the walls, the hanging, it’s inescapable that everything I do is in relation to space. I know lots of curators begin with a list of the artworks but I always begin with the space. At the Arnolfini I would walk through the space every day – that approach is now ingrained in me.
The other thing I really learned about was what I would call “field research”. Cambridge was all about book research, mostly in the library, on occasion you’d go to an artist’s studio. But one of the first projects I had at Arnolfini, I was asked to take on an exhibition about the Spanish Civil War. And the idea was to look at graphic art and photography surrounding the civil war. So my then director of exhibitions, Rupert Martin, said: “You need to go to Barcelona.” I thought OK fine and I booked a room and got a flight. When I got to Barcelona, I had no idea what to do, I had no contacts, I just walked the city. On day two, just when I was beginning to despair, I was in the backstreet by the cathedral and I looked through a doorway and saw a tatty looking poster – it was a Republican poster from the 1930s! It was an archive – what are the chances?
I always say to people now, go and work in a small organisation, don’t work for a big museum until you’ve cut your teeth and had those experiences because you’re so protected in a big organisation.
INTHow did you find transitioning into somewhere like Tate after that – it must have been quite a contrast?
FMThe first few years at Tate were very difficult. Deep warning bells rang in my head when I thought about applying to Tate. When I got the job, I actually told myself and everybody I met that I was just going for a couple of years. The director who appointed me was Alan Bowness. It was pretty small in those days – there was just one Tate curatorial team – so he had time for tea with every new curator. And his wisdom, his advice was that I should spend four years at the Tate and I thought four years, that’s forever!! But here I am! And actually, by the time four years was up, the Tate had started changing, it got really exciting.
INTYeah I bet! It’s a completely different place to what it was then. You were part of the team that saw in the opening of Tate Modern – what was that like?
FMWild! Well, it’s an interesting question because Tate Modern was not delivered by Tate. The decision was taken by the trustees that rather than giving the project to the existing curatorial team, or directors of the collection, it was given to a Tate Modern project team that was entirely independent. I think the trustees felt that such a big project needed a dedicated team. So they advertised for three curatorial positions, and I applied for the job. I actually resigned from Tate, actually left, in order to work on Tate Modern.
It seemed, to me, the most exciting project in the world.
INTI can’t imagine a time before Tate Modern!
FMExactly, it was like the dark ages. I mean, the institution I looked to was Centre Pompidou and I think the slightly older generations of my colleagues or the people across the Atlantic looked to MoMA. There was always the feeling that the UK was second rate because we didn’t have a museum of modern art. We didn’t have that history, we didn’t have that collection, we didn’t have the ability to engage with modern art on that scale.
At the same time, it did feel like a huge risk because a lot of people were saying, “Bankside, where’s Bankside? That building is so grim, there’s no tube, nobody will come!” All that sort of stuff. Funnily enough, before we opened, we were working on a basis of 1.5 to 2 million as a projected audience. Instantly, it was double. We massively underestimated the draw.
INTDid you have a gut feeling that it was going to go that way?
FMNo, I just felt sick about it actually! It was terrifying! We had two years to really think about what we wanted to do and it was a very rigorous process. It was like a laboratory almost, experimenting with different models of thinking about art history. We looked at the ways art history had been written and chapterised in books. We looked all over the world for different narratives, or different templates or structures or frameworks. We were very interested in what was happening at MoMA and how they were thinking about representing the world, how they were experimenting. When we took the decision about 18 months before we opened that we would have a non-chronological, thematic approach, we knew that we would be really challenged. And we would be really challenging.
INTYour role at Tate Modern now as director has obviously massively changed since then. If you’re meeting someone for the first time, how do you describe what you do?
FMOK, so I think I’m like a conductor, playing the instrument of the museum and all its complexities. I oversee all of it. But I also have to manage the nuts and bolts of how it’s delivered. So part of what I do is quite hardcore management, that deals with budgets and quite complex decisions – like how to deal with the skateboarders on the landscape. Or how to deal with the lighting problem. Or the lift that’s not working. And they are very complicated, bureaucratic challenges, because Tate is a huge, multi-part organisation. But the bit that occupies most of my headspace, is driving forward what the public sees in the building, whether it’s what they see in the auditorium, or in the Turbine Hall, or in the Tanks, or in the collection galleries, or in exhibitions programme. And because we work on very different registers of time, I’m thinking about what happens next week, as well as next year, as well as in five years.
“We are a museum for our local audience in all its diversity”
INTWhen you’re programming things that far in the future, what kind of factors come into play? Tate has such a high volume of visitors and, within that, a huge diversity of interests and backgrounds – do you try to cater to all of them, is that even possible?
FMThere are two frameworks that sit on top of each other, really, that we have to somehow make align. One is the framework which I’m least interested in, but it’s really important, and that has to do with income generation. I have an annual target for that, which is principally driven by the number of tickets we sell. You could do it with one blockbuster, or you can do it with two quite successful shows – the point is you have to create a structured programme that will meet that target.
Then alongside that is the framework around our artistic vision. And that is led, at least from my perspective, very much by the idea that we are a museum for our local audience in all its diversity. It’s an audience that deserves to have a range of experiences from making things to seeing things that are accessible, but deeply embedded in scholarship. So that’s really the intellectual challenge. How do you take something that is meaningful to thousands of people who live in Southwark and Lambeth but also then connects with what the scholars are doing and how they’re rewriting narratives around surrealism, for example. And that’s really incredibly exciting.
INTSo you’re trying to find a balance, a place where those ideas overlap?
FMYeah, I know there are some curators and directors who really believe in the intrinsic value of the artists that they love most. But I don’t feel like that. Of course, there are lots of artists I would love to do exhibitions of, but I’m not going to indulge myself at Tate Modern.
INTThere’s a certain responsibility that comes with your job, do you feel the pressure of it?
FMI’m very aware of it, because I’m constantly reminded of it. I get data daily about the numbers of people coming and quite regular information about the types of people coming. I feel very strongly the responsibility of running a national museum. You look at our mission statement and it’s pretty clear – we exist for the people. I’m not, and I wouldn’t be happy to feel that we were privileging one group of people over another. I think we have to do what we can to make Tate as open as possible, but I’m also very aware that we’re not well served by the society in which we live, or educational structures or the structures of bias and privilege.
INTOne of the big shows you have on at the moment is Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life. Can you talk us through how an exhibition of this scale turns from an idea to a reality?
FMThe process of deciding which monographic artist we will work on is a really torturous one because we do so few monographic shows. This means they’ve got to tick lots of boxes. In the first instance, we’ve got to think they’re really great. Then it becomes about what is the work saying? Who is it doing it for? How will it fit within our galleries? Is it the right kind of space? What conversation can we have with the artist? There are all sorts of factors! Often, however, it’s to do with whether it’s the right moment in their career for them and Tate to align and work together. And I hope we’ve got that magic right with Olafur. He’s always been such an iconic artist because of the Weather Project in the Turbine Hall. There’s always been a feeling that we should return to his work, reconnect. And we’ve often done that – we reconnected with Louise Bourgeois for example. I like that return.
INTLooking back, is there a show that you’re particularly proud or fond of?
FMThe opening installation that I made with Louise Bourgeois, on a completely personal basis, changed my life more than any other project because she was an artist that I was very, very obsessed with and she was very old. She allowed me to do the most ambitious project of her life in terms of its scale, and I’m still very close to the Bourgeois estate. That gives me a huge amount of pleasure to think that I’ve had decades of association with such an extraordinary woman and now the people who look after her legacy. And, you know, that was just good fortune. I just said: Would you like to do this? And she said yes!
INTSo it was a good decision to not become a historian then?
FMYeah. Although, now I feel that the world is in tatters, and maybe politics should be have been the thing.