The man from the Tate

by Sally Blundell / 25 September, 2010
Walters Prize judge Vicente Todolí has just left one of the top jobs in contemporary art

'A museum isn't just a building. It's an activity and it can happen anywhere" - Vicente Todolí, Spanish art historian, judge of the 2010 Walters Prize and until June this year director of London's Tate Modern.

"It is the amplifier of the artist's voice. It tries to make that voice louder and clearer so it can have far-reaching effects. I'm against museums that impose lines or give directions to artists - museums should follow artists."

Todolí is on the phone from the UK, having recently returned from the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea. The art world has broadened, he says, the big art centres of the world attracting new waves of local artists, diasporic artists. "If you are born an artist, you are born to run. You carry with you your roots but you don't want your roots to limit you; you want them to be a springboard to grow as an artist."

Todolí's roots are in Valencia. His springboard to one of the top jobs in contemporary art was the 1976 Venice Biennale. He was 18, Franco had died the year before. In isolated Spain, modern art was perceived through the black and white photographs of overseas magazines.

"But that exhibition changed everything. It was like going from a world of black and white to a world in colour. That's when I decided this is what I wanted to do as a job."

A job he has tackled in seven-year strides - seven years as artistic director of the new IVAM (Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno) in Valencia, seven years as founding director for the equally new Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Portugal, then seven years turning Tate Modern into what has been described as the world's most popular modern art museum.

"Let's say the other museums were like a sailing boat - very agile and if you made a decision you could execute it fast. Tate Modern was more like an airplane carrier, which allows you to do many more things but which is not as agile and sometimes you don't know if you are docked or at sea, so sometimes it is difficult to reach the water. The water, for me, is the art."

At Tate Modern, he promptly rehung the collection, as he thinks exhibition models come with a sell-by date. He curated a groundbreaking series of exhibitions of early modernist artists and developed a reputation for his determined engagement with artists. The goal - to encourage gallery goers to look at art presented in new and dynamic ways, to have an opinion, to help them build their own "art stories". Great art has a nucleus of inexhaustible mystery that is impossible to be accessed through words, he says. "The more sides you reveal, the better it is for the art world and for the public."

And the public has responded. Since it opened 10 years ago, 45 million people have explored the former Bankside power station. In 2008 alone, 5.2 million visitors entered its doors.

Cause for some pride?

"When I was sometimes elated by the success of an exhibition, I would say, 'In terms of what? Ticket sales?' No. A museum is not a TV station."

He says the measure of success is not in numbers, not in big-name designer buildings - they can become an empty monument, a monolith, "and that is a monument to death".

No. Success is in doing something that has never been done before, bringing new research and a new way of looking.

"When a show is influential in the art world, when people remember an exhibition after 10 years and tell you how exciting it was for them - that is success."

Yet Todolí is not driven by single-minded ambition. Far from it. He loves to cook, to read. He is planning a publication with photographer Robert Frank, a film on world-renowned Catalan chef Ferran Adrià, later an exhibition of work by Richard Hamilton.

"But I don't want to think about what to do next because then you won't be really free. I don't want to be a specialist. I want to learn more. In a way, it's an ideal of life - I would like to be an amateur in almost everything and professional in almost nothing."

WALTERS PRIZE, winner announced October 8.

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