He cuts an ascetic figure, yet since taking charge of the national collection of recent British art, Sir Nicholas Serota (opposite) has turned a fusty institution into a commercial juggernaut. And he still has nine years to go. Andrew Davidson wonders how he'll use them.
It was just a scrappy note, hand-scrawled and pinned to a noticeboard, but when the staff at Tate Britain saw it, they must have thought, yup, job done. Kim Howells, minister of culture, had offered to the world his views on the Turner Prize exhibitors. Conceptual bullshit. The media furore that followed was in the best traditions of a prize that has long been one of the most cunningly conceived marketing tools the arts have ever seen.
Upstairs in his forbidding white cube of an office, Sir Nick Serota, the tall, lean, unsmiling director of the Tate, may have permitted himself a little lip-twitch of pleasure. Before Howells, there was a distinct danger that 2002's Turner Prize had a whiff of so-what? about it. The critics were unimpressed, many felt the standard of exhibitors was slipping, the buzz was virtually inaudible. Enter Howells.
It could almost have been pre-arranged.
Serota, sitting at the plain meeting table in his plain room above the main Tate Britain entrance, pours his coffee with precision. I ask him: is any publicity good publicity? He pauses as an academic would, to ensure his answer is thought through.
'I am very happy that the gallery gets written about, and that will inevitably be controversial from time to time,' he says.
So is the Tate obsessed with creating publicity? He pauses again. 'I began life as a maker of exhibitions,' he says quietly, 'and there is very little point in making exhibitions unless you bring people in to see them.' Another pause. Slow sip of coffee. Silence.
And that is the method of the man who now sits atop one of the most admired and successful arts organisations in the country. Precise, pared-down, always considered, 'a complete Puritan, the ultimate Calvinist', according to one friend. Yet he has, in seeming contradiction to his character, created a marketing-driven, publicity-adept, brand-oriented commercial juggernaut of a partly public body that deftly interlinks the conflicting interests of old Britain and new, and those in the art world and in business.
If that sounds too laudatory, just listen to the applause. Two years ago, Serota's opening of Tate Modern, the pounds 130 million new gallery converted out of an old power station on London's South Bank, was hailed as an extravagant success. Likewise, his pounds 32 million refurbishment of Tate Britain, the old Tate Gallery on London's Millbank. Even before then, his leadership of the Tate organisation was being praised as inspirational and his championing of contemporary British art seen as crucial to a perceived upsurge in national creativity.
And he has not just boosted demand for the work of a whole new generation of artists. He has, with Tate Modern, shown how the arts can revive the economy of a run-down locality. He has marketed his brand with the nous of a top retailer and increased revenues from non-government sources to about two-thirds of Tate's income. He has also, as he is required to do, put on critically acclaimed art shows, most recently those showing Matisse and Picasso, Barnett Newman, Andy Warhol and Lucian Freud.
In this rich menu of offerings, the annual furore over the Turner Prize is just an amuse-gueule. Similarly the gibes that Serota and the Tate are too powerful, or that he is a man too obsessed with controlling everthing in his empire. As a former gallery director puts it: 'He probably does want to control everything, and rightly so, because he is very good at it.' Serota, at 56, is simply the most able arts manager in Britain.
Yet life, you suspect, does not get any easier for such a driven achiever.
He keeps a succession of cleverly juggled balls in the air, without so much as a slip: Tate galleries in London, Liverpool and St Ives, that oh-so-admired brand, pounds 56 million operating expenditure, a legion of loyal business backers, a mission to create new awareness of British art and reach new audiences. But it can't go on for ever. Maybe there was a stumble last autumn, when he warned that unless the Government gave him more money, he'd be unable to keep adding significantly to the Tate's collections and might run into deficit.
Cash crisis? Parts of the operation to close? No-one believes that - surely it was just Serota putting one across the Government's bows, before Howells stuck one back - but those who hate how he has commercialised the institution may have started reciting their Ozymandias. For Serota, who built his empire in leaps and bounds, a man disinclined to let the sand drift at his feet, is now hemmed in. No more new galleries, no expansion in the regions, little to do but fiddle with what he's got for the nine years he's left on his contract.
Can he be content with that? Meanwhile, others in the capital's hotch-potch of major museums and galleries, all set up for different reasons centuries ago and carrying overlapping collections, will be stealing the spotlight. There's a pounds 100 million redevelopment planned for the National Gallery, the nation's collection of great paintings, in Trafalgar Square.
Then the V&A may build its funky new extension designed by fashionable architect Daniel Libeskind - the man who, you may remember, was invited by Serota to present last year's Turner prize. There's a new space being opened by Charles Saatchi, just down the river from Tate Modern, to show off his collection of contemporary art.
The competition is always catching up. It's good news for art lovers, who know these things go in waves. But what if Saatchi's new offering makes Tate Modern's collection look second-rate? What if the Turner prize, symbol of all that is radical and challenging and fresh in today's art world, begins to look tired? (Some say it already does.) In short, the worry for the Tate could be this: if you position yourself as a high-fashion item, your worst nightmare is to become last year's thing. Look at Harvey Nicks.
If the fear has occurred to Serota, he doesn't show it. He has never been one for easy options anyway. Maintaining Tate as a hip brand - complete with its new Conde Nast-produced, luxury, contemporary arts mag - is just one of his obsessions.
Study the mix of shows his galleries put on and you'll see that, while he loves the contemporary, he is also comfortable - as befits a man usually to be seen in a plain dark suit - with the more traditional side of his curatorial remit. And so he should be, for it is by far the easier sell to gallery-goers and sponsors alike. The surprise, perhaps, is just how much Serota has emphasised the contemporary at the Tate, without denting its traditional appeal.
But he says he would never have taken the pounds 120,000-a-year Tate job unless the trustees had assured him he could change the thrust of the organisation.
Set up in 1895 as the National Gallery of British Art, with a bequest from Henry Tate, it had always been a slightly fusty, government-run institution.
Serota arrived having run two galleries that showcased contemporary art, the Oxford Museum of Modern Art and the Whitechapel - where, incidentally, he had first forged close links with the City. In particular, he brought in those business people who would help him 'run the gallery efficiently with an eye to getting money from other sources'. At the Tate, he would do the same, on a far larger scale.
That emphasis on the contemporary and the commercial, side-by-side with the curatorial, has led to inevitable frictions at the Tate. 'There are some tensions occasionally,' accedes Serota with a little grin, 'the business side of the organisation would like us to do certain things ...' Some say the tension inside and out is a constant, cleverly stoked by Serota. You don't put Tate-branded wallpaper, paint and frames into B&Q, as he has done, without a certain ruffling of feathers. Just the description of the Tate as a brand incenses many traditionalists.
The upshot is that Serota's changes, and the increasing power he wields in making and breaking contemporary artists, has made him a controversial figure. To many, he is a clever impresario. To others, he is increasingly remote and ever more unwilling to accept criticism, frequently firing out fierce rebuttals to those he feels have misinterpreted his actions. Perhaps in a world where validation and opinion are all-important, that is not surprising. But even politicians, says one, are now frightened of his influence.
But the tension is clearly productive, and few - apart from Serota's regular savager, Brian Sewell, art critic of the London Evening Standard - dispute that the Tate director has an eye for art of all types. 'Nick is seen as an icon of contemporary art,' says Lord Stevenson, chairman of Pearson, who worked with him as chairman of Tate Trustees from 1988 to '98, 'but if you examine how he spends the Tate's money, only a fraction goes on that.'
He is also an accomplished manager, hard to please but good at setting goals and pushing others on to ever higher achievement. 'If you put Nick into an ailing FTSE 100 company,' adds Stevenson, 'he would know exactly what to do.'
The changes Serota has pushed through have altered the face of gallery management. For one thing, he has demanded aggressive growth and an emphasis on money-making, transforming the Tate from an institution that had an income of pounds 1 million and a government grant of pounds 4.7 million in 1988 - no development office, no fundraiser - to a giant that spent pounds 81 million last year. He had no choice, he says. One of the first things he had to do was close down part of the Tate's new gallery in Liverpool because of lack of funds.
'Then I tried to persuade the Government we needed more money to make the Tate work. That convinced me that this institution would only flourish if we diversified its sources of income and got more money from the private sector in particular.'
Fifteen years on, wander round Tate Modern and namecheck the corporate donors who helped rebuild the old power station and now keep it open: not just FTSE 100 firms like BT and Unilever but lawyers, accountants, service companies. Ask Tate's fresh-faced deputy director Alex Beard, the former finance director who supplies much of Serota's commercial knowhow, which kind of companies get the most benefit from sticking tight to his organisation, he talks about those that get 'genuine value' and the firms that 'care about the contemporary'. But really it comes down to this - 'businesses that do a lot of entertaining and like to hold receptions in the galleries because they get a very high acceptance rate from an A-list of invitees'.
Many, like Tate Britain's long-term supporter BP, couldn't care less if the organisation is hip or not - they are in it for the long haul, have bought into the more traditional side of the Tate's collection and are conscious of the PR benefits of being seen to support an important institution. But they also want access, and lots of it. It was Serota's early acknowledgment that getting corporate sponsors in involved 'an exchange of value' - which, according to Stevenson, still bolsters relationships to this day. Others describe his commercial and fundraising operations now as phenomenal.
'He has over 40 people working in the development department,' says Colin Tweedy of Arts & Business, the agency that fosters creative and effective partnerships between business and the arts. 'No-one has that size of operation other than the Met in New York.' Staff costs alone have jumped from pounds 3.9 million in 1988 to pounds 23.8 million last year. Staff numbers now top 1,200, including part-timers.
Yet the numbers pay off, so far. Businesses that have done deals with the Tate attest that it is far more commercially savvy than any of the other large arts institutions in London - the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Royal Opera House. Perhaps in some ways, because of the paucity of top-name Old Masters in its collections, the Tate has had to work harder.
But it is also prepared to do deals that others wouldn't.
This winter's agreement with the online credit card firm Egg to put on a series of 'arts happenings', incorporating artists, film-makers and musicians, at Tate Modern, is a case in point. The shows are bluntly branded Tate & Egg Live. Nick Cross, Egg's marketing director, says he's been impressed by how Serota's organi- sation 'has got a real drive to explore any avenue that works for both parties', far more so than any other body he's approached.
Indeed, some feel that the Tate is now better at working with businesses, where it knows what the transaction involves, than squeezing money out of rich individuals, the traditional port-of-call for the more gregarious gallery managers. Serota acknowledges as much when he admits what a slog it was raising the money to build Tate Modern, despite an initial pounds 50 million grant from the National Lottery. Large single donations on the pounds 10 million-plus scale never came through. Pushing the idea of a contemporary gallery in a run-down area was far tougher than he expected. He made it in the end, but the experience left its mark.
Contemporary art, he says, has been embraced much more by the public than by business. 'We still find it difficult to get support for very contemporary art, especially one-person shows.'
Can he understand why? 'Yes, it is a risk attaching your company name to the untried and untested.'
It is likely, however, that the Tate will find it tougher if the economic climate worsens. Many companies are already switching funds out of the arts into schemes emphasising social responsibility. Other galleries and museums have learnt a few Serota tricks. Other forms of income are already well squeezed - except charging for entrance to the core collections, which Serota says he is against on principle - though he charges for his big-name exhibitions.
Beard adds that such a stand on free entry makes commercial sense too.
Encouraging repeat visits means you have more chance of luring visitors into the cafes and the shops, and free entry 'is one of the things that differentiates London from any other capital in the world - it has enormous value'.
But it is important that Serota keeps his books balanced and his organisation in the spotlight for the right reasons. Businesses like backing a winner and part of Tate's attraction for a number of sponsors is the sense of urgency that Serota has instilled into the organisation. That has a logic when the Tate is a vibrant brand with a growing number of interests to protect - a Tate in Liverpool, a Tate in St Ives, maybe more in the regions, getting the collection and the name out to the maximum number of people, tapping into that business goodwill and riding the wave of notoriety that has followed Serota for the past decade. Expansion, as with any business, should be in its lifeblood.
That isn't going to happen, however. Serota says he plans no more Tate outposts and he even envisages a time - say in 50 years - when Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives are given independence. He prefers the idea of partnership with regional galleries. 'There are plenty of people who would like us to expand, but I think that, in the long term, there is real value in having local ownership and local commitment.' For the Tate is not a business, it's a national asset. Serota will now concentrate on running the galleries and improving the collections. His contract has been extended. He has another nine years. He will see it out.
Really? Those who know him well say it is absolutely in the character of the man. He could have quadrupled his salary in America, says Stevenson, and if he was going to leave, he would have done so once Tate Modern was up and running. But he is the Tate; he created it in its modern guise and he still has ambitions to fulfil there - parts of the Tate Modern building are undeveloped, Tate Britain needs better office space. Holes in the collections to fill. Maybe a few exhibitions he's set his heart on curating.
Can a man who has built so much be happy just doing that? That's the question.