Nick Serota has faith. He believes the government will not make the arts suffer any more, and his reason is that George Osborne gets the arts: he could have cancelled the government’s pledge of £50m to the development of the new Tate Modern Switch Building, promised by James Purnell in 2006 as a Labour culture secretary, but in 2010 Osborne actually went against advice – whose we don’t know, but the culture secretary then was Jeremy Hunt - to spike it and instead let the project go ahead. It’s the biggest grant to a cultural development project the Treasury has ever made.
And so, as announced today, the other half of Tate Modern will open next June having cost £260m, £35m more than the 2012 estimate. At 5.7m visitors last year, Tate Modern is the most popular museum of contemporary art in the world, but this exciting asset will have cost a total of £397m. For that we have got a remodelling of Giles Gilbert Scott’s vaguely post-art deco undistinguished design of an industrial plant with an idiosyncratic walnut whirl of a building added on/ For half we could have had a purpose-designed gallery by a British architect – our architects are notoriously better honoured and commissioned overseas than they are here – that would have been a statement not only of the standard of our collections and our skills in presenting them, but of our pre-eminence as designers of purpose-built contemporary cultural buildings.
The counter to that, though, is that what Tate Modern has become, for all its awkward escalator system and the great maw at its centre where the pumping station’s turbines used to turn, is a flexible series of spaces of all shapes and sizes which has brought millions in and taught those who didn’t know they liked contemporary and modern art to love it. For free.
In 2000 when Tate Modern opened no-one knew that the public would want to participate in art, that dance could be part of the visual experience, that art could be made to change. In 2012 the first part of the new building (on the spot where the power station’s switch house once stood) opened temporarily three years ago when the huge subterranean tanks were used to present performance and film, as they will again next year.
What developments in visual art are to come we can’t know, but the expectation is that Tate Modern’s flexibility that has developed since it opened is now built in and will be able to cope. The new half is a curious structure, an odd spiral that had to be rethought from its first appearance on the drawing board because of its window arrangements, and it will be clad in terracotta bricks to match Gilbert Scott’s 1950s design. And it will have a 360-degree viewing platform that will challenge the Shard half a mile to the east and the London Eye a mile the other way as a tourist attraction.
So through luck and default as much as design we have a gilt-edged cultural asset that George Osborne plainly saw the potential of when he over-ruled the advice to scrap it five years ago. And it will be the crowning achievement for Serota, who will be 70 a few weeks before the opening and a year short of the 30th anniversary of his taking on the Tate.