I first interviewed Sir Nicholas 20 years ago and, looking back, he seems to me barely to have aged. Perhaps his face has just got a little craggier. Tall and slim, he was wearing then as he does now his signature black suit with white shirt and tie, rimless glasses contributing to the austere look. He will soon be 70 but does not want this interview to in any way celebrate this fact, as apparently he prefers not to mark his own anniversaries, only those of the organisation he leads. For all he has achieved, and he is without doubt one of the most important and influential people in art – in 2014 he topped the “Art Review” annual list of the art world’s most powerful figures – he remains surprisingly modest, ensuring that he fills me in on the roles others have played in making Tate what it is today.
Nicholas Serota was born in 1946. His father, Stanley was a Civil Engineer and his mother Beatrice, Baroness Serota, a Labour peer. His parents grew up in Hackney and Stamford Hill and his paternal grandfather had a factory making furniture, some of which he found when he arrived at Tate, “They used to have these cabinets which had Serota written on them but they all got thrown out with the digitalisation of the library,” he remembers. Serota spent his childhood in Hampstead and attended The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School where he was appointed School Captain.
My first question of whether his mother’s record of public service influenced him makes him laugh. “It would be very difficult to deny it and I would not want to deny it. Of course it had an influence. I grew up in a family that felt that they had a part to play in the post-war era of creating a better society in England and they felt that they could make a contribution.” He is obviously very proud of her, reeling off her achievements which included being an authority on education and child welfare in the Lords and being a governor of the BBC. What did he learn from her? “Inevitably she made me aware of the significance of giving young people the opportunity to learn from others, learn by experience and learn from themselves.” It is perhaps not surprising that Tate Modern places a particular emphasis on learning and is particularly popular with younger generations, with over 50% of its visitors being under the age of 35.
His mother, however, was not particularly interested in the arts, and it was with his father that he first started visiting museums though Serota senior did not share his son’s enthusiasm for the contemporary. “He was always extremely sceptical about modern art to his dying day. And I used to provoke him by sending him postcards with Manzoni (the Italian artist best known for producing cans he claimed contained his own excrement) on and things of that kind, telling him these were important works of art and he should take note.”
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Frank Auerbach Installation at the Tate. (J Fernandes)
New Tate Modern