Hidden in The Tate St. Ives

Written By Nina Hanz

When it comes to museums, what you see is what you get. Or it is?

Hidden in the Tate St. Ives are works of art you wouldn’t expect to find. During the grand re-opening weekend in mid-October, I found a Rothko hidden in an unsuspecting hallway, in a lonely corner. The same can be said for a painting of the Notre-Dame by Henri Matisse which also seemed to be intentionally clustered in a larger wall of art, as if to shelter it from attention. And then there was the art painting by Pauline Boty, who herself is a hidden treasure of British art history who unfortunately died too young. Even in my interview weeks later with specialist Janet Axten, she confessed “There is so much to see that I think it quite unlikely that the general audience will feel that they are not receiving certain information. It would take plenty of visits to realise what is there.” However, what people do leave with is a greater understanding of Cornwall’s significance within the international art community due to the Tate St. Ives’ unapologetic focus on the vast range art inspired by and created in Cornwall.

In the stairwell painted by France-Lise McGurn as part of the Tate St. Ives Artists’ Programme.

When redrafting the curation of the exhibitions, it was clear that the St. Ives ‘story’ was what would both separate the gallery from other modern art museums and also enhance it. Besides displaying pieces by Piet Mondrian and Pablo Picasso, the Tate reveals the many local and international artists who have been inspired by St. Ives. By highlighting the history of the town conveyed through artists like Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon and Naum Gabo to name a few, the audience begins to see the hidden network of artists this coastal town has created.

The majority of the exhibition are dedicated to St. Ives and will remain there for the next three years with the possibility for minor changes. What will be changing more often is the new exhibition spaces created for the grand re-opening. In this concrete gallery, the exhibition will be changing three times a year and conveyed a fairly industrial look which will displaying an exhibition on Virginia Woolf and her relation to the town as of the 10th of February. 

When it comes to the design of the new gallery, it too seems hidden. Reaching about 600 square feet, this concrete room is light-flooded only from the ceiling as the renovation was confined by the bordering residential area, making it is nearly impossible to see from outside the building. However, this £20million semi-underground gallery excavated from the hillside by facing Porthmeor Beach is not the first renovation to have occurred on the site.

One Rebecca Warren’s sculpture in the new gallery space.

Located next to the Atlantic Ocean, the original location of the Tate St. Ives was a gasworks plant. With help from the European Regional Development Fund and the Henry Moore Fund, the building was a finished gallery space by 1993. This history has remained within the actual construction of the gallery despite major overhauls. For example, the eighth gallery space dedicated to artworks of the “New Directions After 1960” mimics the cylinders used during the industrial plant’s existence. This concaving gallery has paintings hung on the circular walls for visitors to immerse themselves into. However, this curve is repeated on the northwest side by the windows. This allows you to not only enjoy the artwork, but also have a view of the very shoreline which has over the many decades driven artists, poets and authors alike to create art.

Janet Axten giving a talk on Pauline Boty in Gallery 8.

This fusion with the local, national and international history of the museum is part of the very beauty that makes the Tate St. Ives so unique, even if it is intermediately visible when you browse the many corridors, staircases and galleries. When you visit the Tate St. Ives, you come for the art, but within those very walls you begin to understand that something else has also been captured amongst the many paintings, sculptures and instillations. What it has to offer is a legacy unique Cornwall and St. Ives. That is precisely what keeps you coming back.