Tate Britain

Tate Britain (c) Tate Photography

Tate today announced next steps for the room containing the Rex Whistler mural at Tate Britain. A contemporary artist will be invited to create a new site-specific installation in the room, which will then be open to visitors as a display space. This new work will be exhibited alongside and in dialogue with the mural, reframing the way the space is experienced. It will also be joined by a new display of interpretative material, which will critically engage with the mural’s history and content, including its racist imagery. It will explore the artist’s life and career, responses to the work over time, and connections to wider historical contexts.

This approach was developed through a series of discussions held in 2021 which invited voices from outside Tate to explore possible options, including artists, art historians, cultural advisors, civic representatives and young creative practitioners. The discussions, co-chaired by Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain, built on many previous conversations and incorporated feedback received directly from visitors and colleagues. The insights and ideas from this process were developed into the recommendations approved by Tate’s Board of Trustees this month.

The offensive nature of the mural’s imagery has been discussed over many years and was previously addressed in interpretation text at the entrance to the room. In 2020, Tate’s Directors and Trustees agreed that the room should no longer be used as a restaurant and that a new, bolder approach was needed. Tate is responsible for the mural as a work of art, so the new approach needed to create an appropriate and inclusive context for it to be viewed and allow this context to evolve over time as needed.

The room containing the mural will open to the public next winter, and further details about the artist to be commissioned will be announced in due course.

Quotes:

Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain and a co-chair of Rex Whistler mural discussions:

“The Rex Whistler mural presents a unique challenge. It has remained static on the walls of a restaurant for almost a century while the museum around it has constantly shifted. Tate Britain is now a place of everchanging displays and commissions, where the past and present are juxtaposed, and where art is open to all. The mural is part of our institutional and cultural history and we must take responsibility for it, but this new approach will also enable us to reflect the values and commitments we hold today and to bring new voices and ideas to the fore.”

Amia Srinivasan, Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, University of Oxford, and a co-chair of Rex Whistler mural discussions:

“Conversations about the mural were open, rigorous, and filled with good-natured but deep disagreement: Would keeping the mural open to the public accentuate its power? Would shutting it off risk doing the same? Could the space be used by artists of colour as a creative site of reappropriation? Or would this unfairly burden them with a problem produced by a historically white institution? One of the few points of consensus was that Tate had to take ownership of its history, and that whatever decision was made had to be an invitation to a broader conversation, not the end of one.”

David Dibosa, Reader in Museology at Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London, and a co-chair of Rex Whistler mural discussions:

I stand side by side with those who seek to address the difficulties of the past honestly and fearlessly. It takes enormous courage to face our faults and we need to make space for an open hearing. That’s why I have taken part in these discussions and, even though it has not been easy, I can attest to the integrity of the work that has been done. With honesty, we can meet our friends and our critics and even our opponents, knowing that we are committed to safeguarding the rich legacy of art that we hold for generations to come.”

Mark Miller, Head of Learning Programme & Practice at Tate, and a co-chair of Rex Whistler mural discussions:

“Our art, our public and our cultural spaces require open, bold and difficult conversations about the challenges we face, and that honest dialogue should span all generations. Young creatives always bring a commitment and passion to conversations at Tate, as well as a rigorous questioning of what it means to hold and present art. Their back and forth on these issues, through agreement and disagreement, really captured the complex ways we all relate to works of art and the histories they bring to bear. These are conversations we will continue to revisit as we move forward.”

Rachel Noel, Convenor of Young People's Programmes at Tate, and a co-chair of Rex Whistler mural discussions:

“As our future artists, archivists, curators, visitors and leaders, it was crucial that the next generation are part of this dialogue. They reflected deeply on the issues, and the challenges that lie ahead. Young people want to see museums take ownership of their difficult histories and explore how the past relates to our future. They want to be a part of a new way of presenting art which is porous, conversational, transparent and unfinished, which brings together different voices and presents opportunities for learning through critical and artistic exchange.”