Tate Modern Takes to the Streets

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A couple of weeks ago, London's Tate Modern got a face lift. Five international street artists--Blu from Bologna, Italy, collective Faile from New York, JR from Paris, Nunca and Os Gemeos from Sao Paulo and Sixeart from Barcelona--transformed the outer walls as part of the museum's Street Art exhibition.

The exhibition, which started on May 23 and runs through August 25, shows street art in its natural outdoor environs. The museum also commissioned five Madrid-based artists (3TTMan, Spok, Nano 4814, El Tono and Nuria) to create work in the neighborhood that the museum is running street walking tours to see as part of the exhibit.

The Tate is billing the show as the first major display of street art by a public institution in London. And even though the genre is a proven crowd pleaser, as evidenced by the enormous queues of humanity who waited to get a glimpse of Banksy's Cans Festival earlier in May, it's no surprise that the Tate -- no stranger to non-traditional tactics -- has stepped up to recognize the contemporary work being created on the world's streets.

Tate Modern: Street Art
Tate Modern: Street Art
We spoke to Will Gompertz, director of Tate Media, about the exhibit, why a certain high profile British artist is not part of it and more.

Why this exhibition now? How did it come about?
The reason for doing it now is that we wanted to explore urban art at its broadest sense, so at one end of the scale we've got a major retrospective of Cy Twombly and then at the other end we've got the street art. In between we've got a show called Street & Studio which looks at 100 years of photography from the streets, like (Henri) Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and so on. So street art fits into that whole idea.

There's also a street art component now on the Tate Kids website which is a lot of fun. It's great how we've taken this idea and rolled it out through the line. So there's the street art exhibition, the walking tours, we made a series of films with Channel Four and then the kid's website. So it's about taking the idea and looking at it from several different angles.

Many galleries and museums have brought art from the streets inside their walls, but the Tate's done something different this time.
When I commissioned the street art show, I thought it was really important that we didn't do it inside, that it's art designed to sit on the exterior of buildings, in a public vernacular.

(L to R) Work by Sixeart, JR and Faile.
(L to R) Work by Sixeart, JR and Faile.
Tell me a bit more about the street walking tour.
It's amazing. Two interesting things about doing something like this as a big public institution. The first is, the reason for doing (the street art) on that scale is that the Tate has got the ability to be monumental and the ability to put things on the agenda and give artists who might not otherwise have a voice, a voice within society. So by making it monumental we're able to help elevate the idea of street art beyond something some people might think as hooliganism and vandalism, to an art form.

Some of the artists come from cities from around the world, such as Sao Paulo where the previous mayor loved street art and it was legal. These guys are real artists and just because they're working outside the establishment doesn't mean that someone like Tate shouldn't do something on it as an art form.

The street art walk is interesting. Again, it's about showing people the art in its natural setting but for us, it was also about showing you can do street art and it be totally legal. We asked the local council, the owners of the buildings and we asked the local community their thoughts. So with the permissions we went and got some amazing artists and the response has been so strong we've even got people asking if we could do some more.

So the idea is to show that these are high end artists, not thugs or hooligans, and also there is a process one can go through to practice legal street art.

Most obvious question: Why no Banksy?
Well, that's another interesting point. We didn't commission any British artists. The reason for that is really simple — you can already see a lot of Banksy and others in London so this was an opportunity to take artists from around the world, whose work we might not otherwise get a chance to see.

How has the response to the show been?
The response has been fantastic. We have had some people that have been quite challenged by the JR image (a man holding video camera in a gun-like pose) but I can see that and that's why it's there. It's just a bloke holding a camera so it's interesting people feel challenged by that. I'd also be interested in how an American audience would react to it. It would be great to show these works there, too.
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