This article was previously published in the special edition, ALUMNAE (December 2018).
Tate Modern is definitively one of the most popular art museums in the world, and Frances Morris has been fundamentally involved in its development since its opening in 2000. Joining Tate as a curator in 1987, she was promoted to be the inaugural Head of Displays at Tate Modern, later Head of International Collections, a post she held for a decade – until her appointment as Director in 2016. She is not only the first woman to lead Tate Modern, but also the first Tate ‘insider’ to rise to this position, as previous directors have been brought in from the glittering European art scene.
Morris is responsible for the non-chronological style of Tate Modern’s hanging, a radical and controversial strategy when first introduced in 2000, it has now become a popular system of display in galleries and museums world-wide. Her Bankside ‘cathedral’ to the modern and contemporary now receives an average of 5.8 million visitors a year and has played a major role in making art more accessible to diverse audiences from near and far.
Photograph by Hugo Gleninning, 2016
Born in south-east London in 1959, Morris studied History of Art as an undergraduate at Cambridge before writing an MA thesis at The Courtauld on the French modernist painter Jean Hélion. She then worked for a short time at Bristol’s Arnolfini until returning to London to begin her career at Tate. Throughout she has made it her mission to raise the profile of women and artists from outside Europe and America, as can be seen in the subjects of the many major international exhibitions she has curated, including Louise Bourgeois in 2007, Yayoi Kusama in 2012, and Agnes Martin in 2015. After taking charge of Tate Modern, she oversaw the completion and opening of its biggest development yet, the Switch House extension (now named ‘Blavatnik Building’), within her first year. The project, which increased the size of the gallery by 60%, has been criticised for its provision of public and non-gallery spaces, yet Morris is determined to extend the ‘civic’ and ‘educational’ role of the museum as well as exploiting the potential of the new spaces to give exposure to artists from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
When asked by Apollo about her mission to increase female representation at Tate, Morris responded, “It is important to me, and not just for the sake of it. We need to look at the overlooked – at careers and contributions that were different and had to be different as they were made at the margins. I count women in this. Many galleries in the Switch House are dedicated to single artists, and because of the deficit of women in the historic collection we have made a particular effort to privilege great work by women.”