Holroyd was the first Keeper appointed to the National Gallery of British Art (as Tate was initially known) on the Millbank site. He was an artist and scholar and member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers.
His chief contribution to Tate was the formation of a collection of work by Alfred Stevens, a painter, sculptor and designer whose best known work is the Wellington Monument in St Paul’s Cathedral. On leaving the Tate, Holroyd went on to become Director of the National Gallery.
MacColl originally studied for the church but abandoned these studies to teach art history. He was perhaps an unlikely choice for Keeper of a national collection in that he had become renowned for his fierce attacks on the art establishment, criticizing not only the Royal Academy but works at Tate collection including Henry Tates collection and the Chantrey Bequest.
However his astute mind and willingness to stand up for his beliefs made him invaluable to Tate in its early years. He strengthened the collection on many fronts: re-hanging the galleries to display it at its best, strengthening the holdings of Pre-Raphaelite work and drawing up a list of desirable additions to the collection including works by Philip Wilson Steer, Augustus John OM, and Walter Sickert.
Previously Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, where he had been dedicated to making art accessible to the ordinary people of London’s East End, Charles Aitken was a quiet and modest man who seemed an unlikely candidate for the task of heading the Tate Gallery.
However, he achieved a great deal during his Directorship. His able administration helped the cash-strapped gallery gain strength and improve the collection: he was the first to suggest charging an entrance fee to fund the purchase of new artworks. One of his great achievements was the acquisition of some of William Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Manson, a painter whose loyalties appear to have been divided between his own work as an artist and his responsibilities as Director of the Tate, was the least successful of Tate’s Directors. Although there were some improvements during his Directorship such as the 1932 adoption of Tate Gallery as its official name and the installation of electric lights in 1935, his dislike of modern art meant that – at a time when museums in Europe and America were expanding their collections – important works of modern art were turned down by the Tate.
Sir John Rothenstein
The longest serving Director to date, Rothenstein’s role was pivotal in ‘dragging the British art world screaming and kicking into the twentieth century’, as his obituary in The Independent had it. When he took over the directorship in 1938 the collection did not represent much of what was happening in contemporary British art. Rothenstein set about rectifying this, adding a great number of works by modern British artists including Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. He also strengthened the modern international collection by acquiring important works by major European artists such as Picasso and Matisse, as well as paintings representing the new wave of American abstract art.
Sir Norman Reid
A trained painter, Reid strengthened the collection, particularly in the area of early twentieth-century European art, acquiring outstanding works by artists including Brancusi, Mondrian and Dalí. Reid also forged strong personal relationships with artists, which led to a number of important works being donated to Tate, including Rothko’s Seagram murals, and work by Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo and Henry Moore.
During his Directorship, the much needed North East Quadrant expansion was completed in 1979, vastly increasing the exhibition space at the Millbank site.
Sir Alan Bowness
Alan Bowness’ directorship saw the creation of Tate Liverpool and the Clore Gallery at Millbank. The success of these projects was largely due to his unflagging enthusiasm and dedication.
He also paved the way for the creation of Tate St Ives by forming links with the Cornish town through taking over the management of the Barbara Hepworth Museum in 1980. His acquisition of Surrealist and American artworks greatly strengthened these areas of the collection.
Sir Nicholas Serota
Nicholas Serota was appointed Director of the Tate in 1988. An art historian and curator, he was previously Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Under his Directorship Tate has seen a dramatic period of expansion. Tate St Ives was opened in 1993, followed by Tate Modern in 2000 and the redevelopment and re-launch of the original Millbank gallery as Tate Britain, to emphasise the nature of the collection displays and exhibitions at each site.