Alex Farquharson, Director, Tate Britain. ©Tate Photography
With hundreds of exhibitions, biennials, and art fairs - including Frieze London - happening around the world, October is the perfect month for curators, critics and museum directors to ponder on the state of the art world – and their role within it. Alex Farquharson, the 47-year-old director of Tate Britain, is no exception. Major exhibitions at his institution, including a survey of works by the UK sculptor Rachel Whiteread (until 21 January), are among the numerous must-see events around the capital.
Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (One Hundred Spaces). 1995. Tate (Seraphina Neville and Andrew Dunkley). ©Rachel Whiteread
Farquharson, who was the founding director of Nottingham Contemporary, joined Tate in 2015 and has spent the past two years developing a new forward plan. As part of his quiet revolution, he plans to rehang the entire collection, grouping paintings according to themes. In 2013, former director Penelope Curtis unveiled her strictly chronological presentation of the collection with labels reduced to a bare minimum.
Farquharson’s ambitious strategy will radically reframe the institution’s holdings. “Whatever form it eventually takes, it’ll be guided by the inter-relationship of art and society, Britain and the world, and history and the present,” he says, emphasising that it’s a “fiction” to think of art as being without historical context. “At the same time, art’s relationship to the important shifts in society is often subtle and indirect – or else, given the nature of historic patronage, one-sided. That’s something we’ll be looking to negotiate in a future rehang of the collection.” Rolling out the new arrangement will be a gradual process.
Tate Britain as a beacon of internationalism in the post-Brexit world is crucially at the heart of Farquharson’s vision. He is candid about the challenges facing the UK culture sector, acknowledging that the European referendum last June “opened up divisions in British society”. Tate Britain can subsequently play a leading role in the debate around Britishness and internationalism, he says.
“These questions of Britishness, in art as in society, are transnational. As much as there are moments in British art history when art is self-consciously British – for example Hogarth, the Pre-Raphaelites, even the Young British Artists – the story of British art is a cross-cultural one,” he says, citing the dominance of artists from the Low Countries in the 16th and 17th centuries, to the contribution to British art made by black and Asian artist-émigrés from former British colonies since the 1950s.
Tate Britain. ©Tate Photography
The forthcoming exhibition Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile (1870 – 1904), due to open 2 November at Tate Britain, filters British places and customs through a particular prism. Tate will be reuniting six of Monet’s views of the Houses of Parliament for the blockbuster show, which also includes View of the Thames: Charing Cross Bridge (1874) by Alfred Sisley.
"Curated by Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, it’s an excellent example of an exhibition that will have great popular appeal and which is also art historically innovative. It begins with the emigration of French artists to Britain after the Prussian occupation of Paris in 1870 and ends with the Entente Cordiale of 1904. Familiar London scenes – the Houses of Parliament, Hyde Park, quintessentially English social rituals – are presented through foreign eyes. Again, Britain in the world.”
Farquharson is also visibly excited at the thought of other key shows in the pipeline such as All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life (28 February – 27 August 2018). This analysis of the human form is significant for several reasons, explains Farquharson. “It seeks to break open the so-called School of London category of painters who reinvented the figurative tradition after the [Second World] war. The curator Elena Crippa (of Tate Britain), tracks the tendency back to roots in early 20th century art, specifically David Bomberg, William Coldstream and Walter Sickert (with cameo appearances by Soutine and Giacometti). It also increases the bandwidth of the movement, in particular through rooms devoted to Paula Rego and F.N. Souza,” he says. It ends with four contemporary women figurative painters in a coda: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Cecily Brown, Celia Paul and Jenny Saville.
Finally, does he still feel like the new boy or a veteran of the Tate family in light of recent seismic staff upheaval including the departure of Nicholas Serota, the museum’s hugely influential director for almost three decades? “There has certainly been a lot of change at Tate of late. For our sector, Tate is a large and complex organisation. Tate runs at different speeds,” he says. And what about the new regime? “Maria Balshaw brings a different style to the role and is furthering our commitment to openness, inclusivity and diversity,” he says.