Search Museum Next

Film: The Art Museum as Civic Space

Digital Producer,
Tate Exchange at Tate

Tate Modern is one of the world’s most successful museums, but in 2016 they challenged themselves to rethink how they connect audiences with art by announcing that ‘Art changes, we change’.

Tate Exchange was a direct response to this mantra creating a space – a civic space, a safe space, a space for meaningful dialogue – otherwise unprecedented in the gallery.

Rather than broadcasting a prescribed story of art, this new space asked the public what matters to them, and the answer has been challenging. “What does art have to do with the refugee experience? What does it mean to be a woman in art? And can art really change the world?”

As the data arrives and visitor feedback builds, is Tate Exchange an example of what the art museum can and should be in the future, or has this been one revolution too far.

Hi, everyone. Thank you so much. Thank you, [Amber]. Can you hear me? I’ve been mulling over all of this, and I think that talking about dialogue as a force for change, I will come back to that quite a lot. Here’s the clicker. Great. My name is Camille. I’m digital producer for Tate Exchange. It is brilliant to be here; it’s great to be at Museum Next; it’s also great to be in [Portland] as an American, born and bred in Pennsylvania, having lived in London for the past five years, I kind of feel like I’m reporting back to the field right now, so it’s quite exciting for me.

It’s also really timely, because just last week on Thursday, Tate Exchange celebrate its first birthday, and in honour of that, we turned the floor, as we would, into a working ceramics factory [unintelligible 00:01:01] tons of clay, but I will get back to that later.

In the brief time we have, I’d like to talk to you about Tate Exchange, what it is, what it isn’t, what we’ve done, and what we’ve tried to do, and how it can set the example for an art museum or gallery, and the civic space.

I was just thinking about this title; I think it might be a little too straightforward. I think maybe it should have been towards the art museum as a civic space, because I think it’s just something that we are always working towards, and [unintelligible 00:01:31] keep working on.

I’d like to argue a bit that we’ve achieved a kind of civic space-ness, if you want to put it that way, through our core values, each of which are kind of revolutionary in their own small ways, and those values are risk, openness, trust, and generosity. I’d like to suggest these values as a starting point for moving an art space towards a more civic space, and I’d like to encourage you all to embrace them in your institutions.

So, this is Barbara. Barbara is an 86 year old woman who lives in a block of flats next to Tate Modern, quite literally looking into Tate Exchange. Barbara first joined us as we opened the programme in September 2016, during a project by artist Tim Etchell, called Three Tables, which was literally just that – three modest tables, set aside in the gallery, for the exchange of stories, stories about love and money, about family and work, and more.

The tables were an open invitation to sit down and just share with a stranger. Terrifying, right? And, that’s just what they did. Barbara came in and she sat down, and she had a conversation, and she came back. And, she came back the next day, and the next day, until there were no more days of the project left. In that way, she became something of a regular. It was as if we’d become her local pub, but with tea in paper cups, rather than pints.

When she first started coming to Tate Exchange, Barbara confessed that she was probably going to move the area. She was going to move away, given her age, and consider for greater care, but then a few months ago, we were filming an interview with Barbara, and she said ‘this has changed things for me. I’m reconsidering leaving the area. How could I possibly consider moving here?’ Gesturing around, she said, ‘this is my spiritual home’.

As museum practitioners, I’m sure you’ve all experienced this kind of connection in some way, in some form or another, be it a single person or a classroom of students, or a stranger, and then you may think, how can we have more Barbaras? How can we create that space that allows real change in the lives of our visitors?

I was reading a report by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation recently. It’s from 2016, and it’s called An Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations, and it proposes to define specific roles for arts organisations, which are colleges, places of learning, town halls, places of debate, parks, which are public spaces to everyone, temples, which are places which gives meaning and provide solace, and home, as Barbara put it, a place of safety and belonging. I was reading this, and I couldn’t help but think about Tate Exchange as all of these things in some way.

So, what is Tate Exchange, really? Tate Exchange is an open experiment. It seeks to explore the role of art in society. It’s a space for everyone to collaborate and test ideas, and discover new perspectives on life through art. It strives to do this through revolutionising and opening up the museum to new audiences and new ways of working. We invite international artists, contributors from different fields, the public, and over 60 associate organisations we work within, but also beyond the arts, and we invite them to collaborate with Tate on creating participatory programmes, workshops, activities and debates that always put the audience at their heart.

That’s a lot of words, but what is it really? In very practical terms, Tate Exchange is a floor on level five in the Blavatnik Building in the new Tate Modern extension. It’s also a programme which runs from September until June, much like a school year, and each year has a theme, where we invite the public and participating artists to explore. So, for our inaugural year, the theme was exchange itself, and this year, it will be about production, talking about how we make things, what we make and why, about labour and time.

Since our opening in September 2016, we’ve welcomed over 100,000 visitors into the space, and over 200,000 online, because it is a physical space in the gallery, but it’s also a [unintelligible 00:05:39] outreach and a digital community. At the heart of Tate Exchange is an invitation to explore. We extend it to the various publics and communities, and it is, I would argue, a successful working civic space at the heart of an institution that, let’s face it, has often been seen as alien and impenetrable. It’s a place for the worship of contemporary art, but in a way that is inaccessible to many.

Its difference is recognised as a good thing by many, but also as a challenge, as a former director of Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota put in his inaugural speech when we opened the space, it’s slightly dangerous, but exciting. So, what exactly … ? I mean, how can we actually say that Tate Exchange is dangerous? It’s a museum space, right? I would say rather than dangerous, it’s revolutionary, in a way.

So, I’d like to start with the first, kind of, civic value, which I mentioned before, which is risk, and embracing risk is at the heart of Tate Exchange. We are, after all, an open experiment. So, in July 2016, the new Tate Modern announced the Art Changes, We Change, and Tate Exchange has been a direct response to that mantra. More and more, we’ve been faced with people asking, in a shifting and unstable world, is art really relevant to me? Is this art here relevant to me, and how? Tate Exchange is built as an experiment to address how art supports or [unintelligible 00:07:06] us in the everyday.

If Tate Exchange is risky in its sheer disruption of the traditional museum structure, rather than broadcasting a prescribed story of art, Tate Exchange asks our publics what matters to them, in response to this sort of programming and digital outreach, like this programme, which was hosted by a group called Public Works. This was called the Civic University, and it was a weekend bringing together artists, academics and activists, to discuss pedagogies that enables societies to work towards collective change.

I use the word ‘revolutionary’, and I know we all will over the next few days, but I know that smaller museums, galleries and grassroots organisations have been following this working model for years, but Tate Exchange is placing that model and embracing that risk, and putting it at the heart of an enormous institution. It says, ‘we are here, and we’re not going to be dismissed in the way that, say, learning projects sometimes are, if we’re honest with ourselves’, [like a] blockbuster exhibition planning, or ideas around curatorial prestige.

Tate Exchange welcomes risk in its embrace of contemporary art practices, and participatory art practice, or art that relies on audience participation to exist. Now, participation can be as simple as Barbara sitting down at a table and having a conversation, or sharing thoughts on a visit using a hashtag, or adding to a thicket of invisible connections in this project by Raqs Media Collective, or contemplating an invitation or a provocation, like this one, which was our inaugural piece by artist Tim Etchell’s, and this went right outside our door for the first year.

Tate Exchange embraces risk by embracing emerging art practices, which focus on community and social engagement. Tate Exchange is revolutionary in taking one of the greatest risks, in the fact that it is an entire floor with no art in it. Just think, an entire floor of a fairly costly museum extension, devoted to filling a space, not with stuff, but with conversations, ideas, arguments, and [civic actions]. It’s a floor dedicated not to a rotating roster of blockbuster exhibitions, but to the thoughts and voices of our visitors, giving them literal wall space, and allowing them to see themselves within the Tate in a meaningful way.

One of our associate artists put this nicely, and said, ‘the physical space is a massive gift. There’s no art here that’s stupidly bold’. Stupid or bold, or both. The space really is a massive gift in its openness, and that’s the second of our values.

To paraphrase Nina Simon, as I’m sure many people will here tonight, museums need to be places not just for visiting, but for active participation, for connecting with culture, and through those experiences, connecting more deeply with each other. We need to design invitations to participate, and at the heart of our invitation is openness. Openness at Tate Exchange means seeing our audience not as viewers, and certainly not as receivers of our knowledge, but co-creators and collaborators, shaping the programme activities and outcomes of everything that we do.

It means celebrating multiple identities and perspectives, and facilitating co-creation, and [unintelligible 00:10:20] curation with the public. One of our earliest projects was with the [unintelligible 00:10:26] Guerrilla Girls, the radical [unintelligible 00:10:29] feminists uncovering inequity in the art world for over 30 years now.

For their project at Tate Exchange, the Guerrilla Girls proposed opening a complaints department, simply inviting the public to complain. Well, we built it and they came. Thousands of people came and left their complaints, written on chalkboards, post-it notes, those modest tools elevated into stuff of participatory art. Complaints ranged from the political to the personal, to the meta, to the simply heart-breaking. Why, Kate? To this, which is one of my personal favourites.

Throughout the week, the girls wove through the complainers, engaging them in conversation, and sometimes just hearing them out, and it was one of those rare public forums where, despite all the complaining, the atmosphere was utterly hopeful.

As digital producer, I look after the digital life of Tate Exchange. That takes the form of managing their Instagram and Twitter accounts, producing film and written content, and championing accessibility throughout. To me, online engagement is just the perfect medium for embracing openness. The internet is a place for creating communities of interest, for democratising ideas. It’s an incredible repository of knowledge and a place where visitors and associates can connect.

Openness, to me, also means asking ourselves whether we are actually making a difference through what we say we do. It means sharing thought-provoking questions and stories to guide our participants, to encourage them, for example, to think about the link between art and migration, and between making and womanhood, ideas [from] womanhood, and the big one we’re always asking ourselves, can I really change society? We’ll get back to you on that one, [but] it’s looking okay.

In that line, openness also means being amenable to hosting difficult conversations, like this bedfellows project, which explored the efficacy or lack of sex education for young people today. It was a conversation I could not imagine happening anywhere else in the Tate, to be perfectly honest, in part because of our openness to let it take whatever form it needed to take, be that in the form of a session on pornography literacy, complete with screenings and a Q&A, or dimming the lights and screaming along to a frankly amazing feminist punk noise punk band, or waving protest signs and placards, or dancing it out, [unintelligible 00:12:59].

Perhaps most importantly, we pursue an openness to allow everyone to be able to see themselves represented in the gallery as they wish, and as they need to be seen. Sometimes that openness is difficult, and it uncovers tender [unintelligible 00:13:16]. We need and we demand an openness to confront the shortcomings in our collection, in the way we collect and represent women, artists of colour, queer artists, and so on.

Openness means literally opening the door, giving literal space to the voices that have historically been denied. This is a performance by artist Rashida Bumbray called Aluminium, in which visitors were taken on a journey through the gallery, throughout the entire Tate, through a dance performance, but also through the lives that had been lost at the hands of the British police state, and Rashida kind of intoned their names as we walked through the space.

Then, this takes us onto a third value, which is trust. Trust is revolutionary, and I want to talk about trust, and I want to talk about, specifically, our associates. So, the way Tate Exchange works is that we, from September through December, do programming internally, through our curators and our learning programmes, but then from January to June, we work with 53 associates. Our associates range from healthcare trusts to women’s rights groups. We have a Digital Maker Collective, led by an 11 year old hacker, teaching children and adults alike how to hack and programme [unintelligible 00:14:36].

We had an impromptu museum of homelessness, which included testimony from the formerly homeless, about how art changed their lives, and a showcase of their work, [acquire and catwalk]. We have social action and local community groups, and we have consortia of schools and universities, for example, [those most counterpoint parts] which ask quite simply, who are we, in the timing of Brexit, the rise of far right nationalism and migration?

Working closely with the associates to bring in their own programmes [unintelligible 00:15:04] to explore [unintelligible 00:15:07], and all of these [unintelligible 00:15:07] engaged with are in the Tate collection. Some of the issues we’ve addressed [through] our associates include sexuality; gender; identity and bullying; sex education and pornography; physical and mental health, including dementia; homelessness; social inclusion and social class; migration; citizenship and refugees; diversity and difference; food and food poverty; schooling and arts education, and the natural and built environment, and the impact of new technologies.

When we invite our associates in, we’re handing them the metaphorical keys, and sometimes literal keys, and that takes real trust. But, trust brings in new ideas and audiences. Trust brings in significantly younger and newer audiences, with 38% of our visitors under 25. Trust brings in more [unintelligible 00:15:52] audiences than Tate as a whole, but we still strive to reflect London as itself, which is quite more diverse than we are. But, we’re [unintelligible 00:16:00]. Trust brings in higher percentages of local audiences and communities than any of the rest of the gallery as a whole.

Trust creates conditions that foster change. In a recent evaluation survey, the most common feature for those who felt Tate Exchange made a difference to their lives personally, said that they felt that their ideas, views and contributions were valued. The second takeaway was that they were able to have conversations that wouldn’t have happened elsewhere, and the third was that it allowed them to see things differently than they have before. And yes, I agree, we really need that.

Finally, our fourth civic value is generosity. Generosity is revolutionary because museums are rarely generous enough. This is artist, [unintelligible 00:16:43]. She’s an Albanian artist, an associate, and I can say, an extraordinarily generous person. For Refugees Welcome, our project with us, she set herself up in a van parked outside of Tate Modern, [projecting] what evoked, for her, the British welcome. Chintzy chairs, the Union Jack, and of course, an endless supply of tea.

You, or [unintelligible 00:17:05] in this case, are invited to sit with her to drink tea together and to talk about migration, about her experience, or perhaps your own, or maybe even about your pro-Brexit [unintelligible 00:17:15], as some did. About everything, it was a perfect little cosmos of generosity and welcome, and a place where you could thrash out your civic responsibilities and thoughts together.

But, generosity at Tate Exchange most often takes the form of pure time and care, given from one person to another, from an artist to a visitor, or between anyone else. This is young artist collective Thick/er Black Lines, who held a summer residency with us, in which they literally mapped out a network of [unintelligible 00:17:43] British women and femme artists, and not only that, brought that network in for an evening of practical skills sharing for young emerging artists, from producing your own social media campaigns, to finding or avoiding [agent] representation, or to very simply, living on artists’ wages in London.

Generosity at Tate Exchange takes the form of an artist inviting you to look closer. Bern O’Donoghue’s Dead Reckoning, it bears witness to the thousands of migrants and refugees who have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Each tiny [unintelligible 00:18:12] in space, handmade by the artist, or perhaps by yourself, is marked with a relationship to another person, father, sister, a friend, and in giving your time, and making and placing [unintelligible 00:18:25] you build a peace for others, and its impact on those to come.

There’s also generosity in giving space to communities that may differ from your own. As a relatively open-minded museum of arts practitioners, there is always the risk of the echo chamber. This [unintelligible 00:18:41] is by Israeli artist, [unintelligible 00:18:43]. It combines textiles and patterns from former and current British colonies, and varied cultures living in London today.

Many of us gave a silent cheer when we saw this piece arrive, but what you don’t see is the reverse, which is a Union Jack, and that inspires all kinds of feelings for visitors, with positive and negative, especially when seen in conjunction with [unintelligible 00:19:03] flag, and it’s those conversations, about the difference, that [unintelligible 00:19:09].

Quite simply, generosity comes in the form of a welcome. This is from a reflective phase over the summer, called We Were Welcome, where we invited visitors to come in, draw and comment, and otherwise share how art had made a difference to their lives. In practical terms, a welcome can be something as simple as a couch, a table, a cup of coffee. Many of our projects feature impromptu libraries, the sheer magnetic pull of a book, maybe slightly dog-eared, definitely loved, has been one of the strongest welcomes, even books that challenged our visitors’ perceptions on, say, sexuality, race, or other issues they weren’t familiar with.

A generous welcome means that 75% to 80% of visitors to Tate Exchange intend to return, with an average visit of well over an hour or two. When we create digital stories or films that also create a space for questioning or welcome, online visitors spend well over a minute or two longer on those stories than the average page on the Tate site, and I know, I mean, it’s a minute, but in digital terms, a minute is a lifetime, [unintelligible 00:20:11] videos.

But, for visitors coming from Twitter to Tate Exchange pages, dwell times are [unintelligible 00:20:19] five to six minutes, and that is so exciting to me as a digital person. Tate Exchange accounts for something about only 3% of visitors to Tate Modern, and I know I have been bigging it up, but it’s only 3% of all visitors to the building, yet more comment cards are completed here than for the whole of the rest of the institution. Something is happening here that encourages and facilitates generous giving of oneself and one’s times and opinions, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s because generosity begets more of itself.

So, to conclude, a civic space is an extension of community, and communities are founded on exchanges, exchanges between cultures, genders, sexualities, ethnicities and people. Here’s some things, so far, that people have exchanged at Tate Exchange: practices; knowledges; skills; stories; recipes; memories; traditions and rituals; ideas and passions, and even phone numbers. Exchanges occurred in the physical space, and online through social media, between art forms and across time periods, between disciplines, including art, science, technology, geography, health and wellbeing, and between and among people, artists, and the public.

But, it hasn’t been without its challenges. As a public institution, there are limits to how we can show or talk about our personal political convictions, and that can be so frustrating. But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t create a space where visitors can engage with facts and truth-telling, and I think there’ll be some talk about truth coming up a little bit later, and be spurred onto civic action in that way.

Sometimes there’s a difficulty in conveying what Tate Exchange really is. Is it a floor? Is it a space? Is it a programme? Or, is it just a series of events?

There’re also the purely logistical challenges we’ve had, for example, bringing eight tons of clay [unintelligible 00:22:05] at Tate Modern, or hosting a live streamed gig by a viral internet sensation, [unintelligible 00:22:09], or our robot windows, which have clearly become [sentient] and open and shut seemingly at will.

But, perhaps the biggest challenge is when people say, ‘where’s the art?’ Well, there it is. It’s in your conversations; it’s in the reflections you had, and in the smallest changes you’ve come away with, in this one floor of one building, in an immense and wonderful, and sometimes indifferent city. As one visitor put it, London is a place where people don’t talk to each other. London needs more places like Tate Exchange.

The first year of Tate Exchange has been a time of political, economic and social uncertainty in the UK and around the world, and I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon, but [unintelligible 00:22:53], and when we’re surrounded by immense and inspiring collection and display, that are sometimes just not minimal enough to be truly reflective of our concerns in our rollercoaster world, we hope to stay light on our feet, and stay true to the spirits of risk, openness, trust and generosity, and to keep asking the big questions.

Thank you. If you have any questions …

Related Content

Creating a playful space for all at Buffalo AKG Art Museum

Jason Povlotsky and Stavros Mavrakis of Quarterre design studio share their experience of supporting Buffalo AKG Art Museum and the Lego Foundation on the development...

Understanding the metaverse and what the future holds for the digital space

It’s a term that has been familiar in tech circles for some time but Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Facebook would be changing its umbrella company...

Is VR-on-demand a viable option for museums diving into the paid content space?

Subscription services are hardly a new idea, nor are they entirely new to the museum sector. But in a post-Covid climate, a growing number of...

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week