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London's Tate Museum Electrifies Crowds


London is home to the world's most popular modern art gallery. It's been just five years since the opening of the Tate Modern. In that time, it's attracted more than 20 million visitors. That's more than Paris' Centre Pompidou or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Notably 60 percent of Tate Modern visitors are under 35. NPR's Anthony Kuhn went to check out the museum's appeal.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Like an industrial church spire, the former power plant's square chimney faces the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral across the Thames River. The Tate Modern's image as London's `cathedral of cool' has a lot to do with its Turbine Hall. With towering windows, the hall is 500 feet long and 115 feet high. American artist Bruce Nauman recently used the Turbine Hall to create a huge sonic sculpture. Entitled "Raw Material," the installation used rows of speakers to turn the vast space into a mental chamber of inner voices.

(Soundbite of exhibit recording)

Unidentified Child: You may want...

Unidentified Man #1: ...to get out of the room. Get out.

Unidentified Child: You may not want...

KUHN: The Turbine Hall was central to the architect's design of the museum, explains Tate deputy director Alex Beard.

Mr. ALEX BEARD (Deputy Director, Tate Modern Art Gallery): Right from the outset, they had a very clear sense that the Turbine Hall should be at the sort of heart of the public's experience at Tate Modern and that it should be an engaging experience, one of being welcomed into this extraordinary, near-public space.

(Soundbite of escalators)

KUHN: From the Turbine Hall, visitors take escalators up to a series of concourses and public spaces leading to the galleries. Government funding keeps admission to the Tate free, and many visitors come just for the atmosphere. Jane Burton, the Tate's curator of interpretation, explains.

Ms. JANE BURTON (Curator of Interpretation, Tate Modern Art Gallery): It's actually a real social place. People come here to meet other people. Yeah, obviously the art is probably the prime focus for most visitors, but nothing wrong with enjoying hanging out in the smart bars, in the coffee bars and who knows who you might meet here. And just feeling comfortable--the fact that we have these great leather sofas around the place where you can kind of lounge and have a rest.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

KUHN: The galleries are arranged thematically instead of chronologically. One entire room of the gallery is taken up by British artist Michael Landy's work "Scrapheap Services."

(Soundbite of exhibit recording)

Unidentified Man #2: Scrapheap Services consider it important that any people that are discarded are swiftly and efficiently cleared away, and this is our duty of care.

KUHN: A team of model sanitation workers appears to sweep up human-shaped cutouts and dump them in a shredder.

(Soundbite of exhibit recording)

Unidentified Man #2: Our mighty 25-horsepower engine ensures that the Vulture will shred people as fast as we can load it.

(Soundbite of engine)

KUHN: The work left some visitors chuckling as they left the room.

Mr. RICHARD HOLLINGHAM: I'm Richard Hollingham. I'm a media lecturer from Oxford and Cherwell College in Oxfordshire. And--well, we were having a discussion about it, yes. We thought it was quite a nice amusing way of a political comment on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

KUHN: Back in the Turbine Hall, retiree Don Widdick(ph) from Salisbury paused to share his thoughts.

Mr. DON WIDDICK: And we come down for the major exhibitions at the Tate Britain, but I've never really caught up with many things in this building that I would appreciate. Well, there's some today--you know, the Picasso and Matisse's bronzes and obviously "The Kiss" by Rodin--but a great deal of the other stuff I wouldn't call art.

KUHN: Indeed, some critics have questioned the Tate's approach to displaying art. Artist and writer Matthew Collings says that like many modern art museums, the Tate celebrates silliness.

Mr. MATTHEW COLLINGS (Artist and Writer): I think its success story is a success of a very shallow idea of art, an idea of art that appeals to, or panders to, the fantasies of a mass audience of what art is; that is, that it should be entertaining and fast and ephemeral, never boring, never difficult, never require any work on the part of the audience.

KUHN: But the Tate has its supporters in Britain's traditional art establishment. Charles Saumarez Smith is director of Britain's National Gallery. In his high-ceilinged office overlooking Trafalgar Square, he says that the Tate's success has helped to dispel some of Britain's suspicion of modern art.

Mr. CHARLES SAUMAREZ SMITH (Director, National Gallery): If I'm asked about what people should do if they're coming from abroad, especially if they're not particularly interested in art, I encourage them to go to Tate Modern just to see it, because it's a phenomenon of urban culture as much as it is an art institution.

KUHN: The Tate is currently planning to double its space, and has plans for a major exhibition this fall of Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Sickert. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.