As Director of the Tate Modern and one of the most respected voice in the arts, Frances Morris has used her influence to fight for greater representation of female artists throughout her impressive career. She has staged several groundbreaking exhibitions, including major retrospectives of Louise Bourgeois in 2007, Yayoi Kusama in 2012 and Agnes Martin in 2015. Having been awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Central Saint Martins, she spoke to UAL and Charlotte Owen (Vanity Fair) about her career highlights, vision for Tate Modern, and the museums which inspired her as a child.
Q: How does it feel to be honoured by University of the Arts London with this award?
A: It feels fantastic. The University of the Arts London is obviously a very special organisation. It crosses London, very close to Tate, adjacent to Tate Britain. I adore Camberwell College of Arts, it’s part of my youth, many visits, many classes– and I never went for arts school – so it has a particular kind of poignancy. I’d like to think that this is my chance at being involved in an arts school, one of the great arts schools of the world. Many of the artists that I studied know, admire, studied at one or other of the colleges at University of the Arts.
Q: How did your appointment to Director of the Tate Modern come about?
A: By mistake really! I never really thought I’d be Director, and I’d sort of given up, not exactly given up hope, I’d made a pact with myself that to be the director of the collection, and to do great exhibitions was really quite sufficient in my life… Then when my predecessor resigned, I realised as a revelation, I just didn’t want to work for another director… so I took a deep breath and went for it, and I have to say it was absolutely the right decision because I’ve enjoyed every day ever since.
Q: What have been your career highlights?
A: I think my career highlights have been the big exhibitions that I’ve done: Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Martin, Alberto Jacometti, just opened. And then I suppose, less visible highlights, like writing about artists that I’m passionate about, Phyllida Barlow, for example, it’s my most exciting piece of writing that I ever did, I loved writing about her work and the experience. And then beyond me of course I’m most proud to be associated with the opening of Tate Modern, and then the Director of Tate Modern!
Q: What are your goals for the Tate Modern over the next five – ten years?
A: We opened last year with a vision that I am absolutely behind and helped shape, to do with diversity, and a broad international agenda. It’s a place where you don’t need a visa to walk between Beijing and Berlin, and I’m passionate about making that ‘borderlessness’ a borderlessness to transgress other borders, of medium, of gender, ethnicity, so that we can look at, we can celebrate the whole range of creativity. And over the next five-ten years you will undoubtedly see more experimental practice, or more work that you might think happens on the margins coming into the centre, so that’s very exciting, because one can introduce people for the first time, and help build careers. But I suppose beyond that, I want to make that a place that is really a local museum, where local people, particularly young people, feel is a very natural and friendly place for them to visit, and we will be doing that with local communities and local schools so that we can really commit to building that kind of engagement.
Q: What museums influenced you as a child?
A: I was very lucky because at the end of my street in south-east London was the National Maritime Museum. It was a magical place for children, very old-fashioned, very difficult to remember nowadays but museums didn’t use to have moving images and labels, it was full of dusty showcases with little mock-ups of battles, and I loved the artefacts, and I loved the fact it was a place that you could play. It was a very democratic open space.
Q: Were you ever tempted to try and make it as an artist yourself?
A: Yes, I was definitely going be an artist, like many young people I loved art. The rotering pen was my favourite instrument as a child, and I loved drawing in sepia ink, and for a long time I thought I would be an artist. I had one of those long conversations with an art teacher when I was in late teens. I plucked up the courage to ask if she thought I would be a good artist, or even a great artist, and she was incredibly honest with me, she said she couldn’t guarantee that I would be a great artist, and so I kind of flipped at that stage, and thought that if I couldn’t be a great artist, I wouldn’t be an artist at all…[Her advice] took me in the direction of history and art history, and I found a lot of creativity in those subjects.
Q: You’ve been vocal in your support for a strong visual arts education; why do you think that it’s so important?
Visual arts, and arts in general, are the area where children can most easily demonstrate and access creativity. And creativity is just the great driver: one of the earliest words children ask is ‘why?’ and another word is ‘how?’ and the why and the how are questions that are so easily explored through the arts, by the hand, in creative activities, and I think it’s of huge benefit to everything that young people go on to do.