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Tate's Millbank Project gets serious

17th May 2012

Last spring, Tate Britain announced that it would embark on a groundbreaking 20-year multi-stage makeover of its space in a venture known as the Millbank Project. The scheme is seen as one of the most comprehensive and ambitious of its kind, a demonstration of the gallery's vision and commitment to providing a "cultural experience" that is synonymous with a world class institution.

And true to its spearheading sensibilities, nonconformist and pioneering, it has, against a backdrop of austerity, managed to raise £45 million, the amount needed to properly launch the first stage of the landmark transformation, which is expected to take over two years to complete.

This includes conservation work and upgrades that will, in general, boost the characteristic features of the gallery, its general ambience – improved circulation – and the overall "articulation" of it. Specifically speaking, this includes opening up the Millbank atrium spaces, producing a new archive gallery befitting its extensive collections, and relocating its beguiling rotunda to its principal position in the foyer.

Important little details such as this hint that the project is as much about reclaiming the past as it is about bringing the gallery into the 21st century. No more is the history of the gallery evident than in Tate Britain's commitment to honour the "fabric" of the late Victorian Sidney R.J. Smith's original design, facets of which are key to its overarching identity.

Take for example the upper space that encircles the rotunda, which was known as the Black and White Gallery many, many years ago. It has, very unfortunately, been closed to the public since 1928, denying many generations a dazzling visual vista. It will now, through this major redevelopment, be restored and reopened. Even then, it appears that, like its 84-year absence from the public sphere, it will retain some air of exclusivity and only be privy to members of the gallery.

In this link to the gallery's origins, Tate Britain is recapturing its place as one of the country's preeminent destinations for British art, which was, after all, the reason why Henry Tate, sugar merchant and philanthropist, engineered the creation of the formerly titled National Gallery of British Art in 1897.

A central feature, therefore, will be a quasi-permanent exhibition that showcases over 500 years' worth of British art, a "walk through time" as it has been described, displayed in a chronological way. That's not to say all of the work will be defined by its place in time; that would be limiting. A "focus" section will continue the time-honoured tradition of collating work on groups of artists, movements and themes.

Although a daring undertaking, Tate Britain's aspirations, though grand, are laudable. That it has managed to raise £45 million through a variety of sources, which includes a £4.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £1 million from Tate members, and various donations from individuals and foundations, in an age of economic volatility, is impressive. It is an example of the gallery's influence and value to the public, who are demanding a world-class and accessible gallery.

A line from a poem penned by the 19th century poet Emily Dickinson comes to mind: "Where thou art, that is home." And so it has begun.

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