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by Paul Bentley

Editor of Mosaic Matters
Chairman of the British Association for Modern Mosaic 1999-2005

It all began back in 2001 when BAMM member Dr. Pat Witts wrote to Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota asking if Tate Modern would feature modern mosaic in its collections. He replied, “There is an agreement with the Trustees of the Victoria & Albert Museum, as the national collection of Art and Design, that they will concentrate on the decorative arts, leaving the graphic arts of the twentieth century to us.”

The idea that mosaic is always “decorative” as opposed to “graphic” is tendentious, of course, not to say silly. Accordingly in 2012 I asked Tate Modern if there had been any change, but Serota’s assistant confirmed the policy: “Sir Nicholas has asked me to reply on his behalf to confirm that we do not usually display contemporary mosaic at Tate. You are correct that we consider it a medium better suited to exhibitions at the V&A, which is the national museum of art and design.”

On enquiry it turned out that the V&A was by no means living up to its agreed role as regards contemporary mosaics. In 2006 they exhibited Variations on the Hexagon by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, and in 2014 they showed three by Carrie Reichardt for their Disobedient Objects show. That was it.

Accordingly I made a Freedom of Information request of the V&A, asking if the Trustees were indeed aware of the agreement Serota had adduced, that the V&A would concentrate on the decorative arts, e.g. modern mosaics. In due course I received a letter from C L Marsden, Senior Archivist and Freedom of Information Officer at the V&A, as follows:-

“There is no written agreement between Tate Modern and the V&A to the effect that the V&A will concentrate on decorative arts and leave the graphic arts of the twentieth century to Tate Modern. I cannot answer quite so categorically regarding a less formal agreement or understanding, since the respective roles and working relationship of our two institutions are frequently discussed both informally and in periodic liaison meetings. However, having searched the relevant files we can find no record of such an agreement, and colleagues with whom I have discussed this matter are unable to confirm its existence.”

A letter to Serota was clearly indicated, asking if he could help me to a solution of the puzzle. Here is his reply:

“24 October 2014
Dear Mr. Bentley,
Than k (sic) you for your email of 14 October. I am sorry if you have been misled into believing that there is a formal agreement between the Tate and the V&A regarding the collection and display of mosaic. There is no such formal agreement, but the demarcation line is quite clear, stained glass mosaic (sic) and other similar applications of the graphic arts have a place in the national collection of art and design rather than in the national collection of painting and sculpture. There is no formal agreement as such, rather an interpretation by each Board of Trustees following the Act of Parliament establishing each institution. I hope this clarifies the matter.”

Well not really, Sir Nicholas. For example you refer to “stained glass, (a comma was presumably omitted) mosaic and other similar applications of the graphic arts…” Hang on, didn’t you say in your 2001 letter to Dr. Patricia Witts that the V&A “will concentrate on the decorative arts, leaving the graphic arts of the twentieth century to us”? But now it seems you hold that mosaic is a graphic art? Or is mosaic merely an application of a graphic art? But then aren’t the paint and bricks and beans in Tate Modern all applications of the graphic arts?

What’s more the V&A knows nothing of any agreement about mosaics, formal or informal, or “an interpretation” either. And then there seems to be some confusion about the role of the Tate. Your letter says that the Tate is “the national collection of painting and sculpture”. Just a minute – what about the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A, which between them display both paintings and sculpture? I note also that the Tate website states, “Tate holds the national collection of British art from 1500 to the present day and international modern and contemporary art”, a definition which again presents amnesia as regards the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A, but does of course allow for mosaics old and new, mosaics most certainly being “art”.

Naturally on receipt of Serota’s letter I immediately submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the Tate, asking them to quote the paragraphs in the Act of Parliament which lay down that the Tate Gallery is exclusively for the collection and exhibition of “painting and sculpture”.

The best they could do was quote from the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 which states, “the Tate Gallery Board shall maintain a collection of British works of art and of documents relating to those works, and a collection of Twentieth Century and contemporary works of art and of documents relating to those works”. In other words Serota was quite wrong to say that according to Parliament the remit of the Tate is limited to painting and sculpture.

What’s more, it would be appear that the narrowing of the Tate’s remit from “works of art” to something less inclusive was a decision reached by the Tate’s Board of Trustees, as for instance in the “Tate Acquisition And Disposal Policy Approved by the Board of Trustees on 16 November 2011”. This says, “Tate collects painting, drawing, prints, sculpture, installation, photography, video and film, performance, new media and archive material as defined in the sections that follow”. So it was the Tate’s trustees who decided to limit the remit and by implication exclude mosaic.

Clearly my next move was to write to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and draw his attention to the fact that Tate Modern has a policy of excluding modern mosaic from its collections and exhibitions of “works of art” and would thereby appear to be failing to fulfil the remit laid down by Parliament, so what should be done about it?

My letter to the minister was ignored, but a later email to the department did elicit a response.

“6 February 2015
Dear Mr Bentley,
Thank you for your letter (sic) of 31 January to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, about the acquisition of mosaics by the Tate Modern. I have been asked to reply.

Thank you for taking the time and trouble to bring the Department's attention to your concerns about the collection of mosaics in national museums and galleries. Although you have already contacted the Tate Modern about this, I should point out that in the UK our national museums operate independently from Government. The acquisition of mosaic art is therefore a matter for consideration by the Trustees themselves.

I hope that this is helpful in explaining the Government's position on the acquisition of such art by national museums.

Yours sincerely,
Dempster Marples
Ministerial Support Team
Department for Culture, Media and Sport”

So that, it would seem, was that - for all his shaky logic Serota would never permit mosaics in Tate Modern. But there was a shock in store – in 2015 a modern mosaic sneaked into Tate Modern as part of the retrospective exhibition Sonia Delaunay! Lillian Sizemore, whose doctoral research focuses on the 20th century mosaic movement, says it was one of three panels on loan from Musée National d'Art Moderne at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It was most likely executed by the Studio of Lino Melano, circa 1954. So not exactly contemporary but a step in the right direction.

And now, in 2016, Sir Nicholas Serota has announced his resignation from the Tate. Mosaic-lovers must hope his successor will be game for rethinking the remit.

Paul Bentley

September 2016

Adapted from articles in BAMM's magazine Grout, nos.45 and 47, and updated.



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