In 1987 a Civil Service inquiry decided that the pay of the Director of the Tate Gallery should match that of the Director of the much larger Victoria & Albert Museum and of the National Gallery, where the pictures were regarded as being much more important, because, and here I quote, "the Director of the Tate has to deal with the very difficult problem of modern art".
For in spite of much greater public interest in all aspects of visual culture, including design and architecture, the challenge posed by contemporary art has not evaporated. We have only to recall the headlines for last year's Turner Prize. "Eminence without merit" (The Sunday Telegraph). "Tate trendies blow a raspberry" (Eastern Daily Press), and my favourite, "For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled bed threaten to make barbarians of us all" (The Daily Mail). Are these papers speaking the minds of their readers? I have no delusions. People may be attracted by the spectacle of new buildings, they may enjoy the social experience of visiting a museum, taking in the view, an espresso or glass of wine, purchasing a book or an artist designed t-shirt. Many are delighted to praise the museum, but remain deeply suspicious of the contents.
In 1964 I was at school, planning to study economics and sociology, when curiosity took me to the Tate Gallery to see an international survey exhibition of contemporary art. It brought together the painting and sculpture of the previous decade, beginning with the late works of the modern masters, Matisse and Picasso, and concluding with the twenty-seven year olds Allen Jones and David Hockney. I was bowled over. Suddenly, art was not just Turner and Constable, or Leonardo and Michelangelo, but objects of considerable size and brilliant colour, dealing with the sensations, subjects and issues of the Sixties.
Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided (1993) is a work which can at first glance be read as nothing more than two brutally severed carcasses. "A freak show" was how the art critic of the Sunday Telegraph responded to its presentation in the Turner Prize in 1995. For me, the undoubted shock, even disgust provoked by the work is part of its appeal. Art should be transgressive. Life is not all sweet.
For the late twentieth-century museum director there is no more certain prospect for audience acclaim and sponsor success than those Impressionist and Post-impressionist artists who were so reviled a century earlier
After thirty years of looking at new work in galleries and even newer work in studios, I am very familiar with the experience of being completely at a loss when confronting a new idea or image.
A visit to a studio never fails to test my resources. It constantly reminds me of the condition in which most people first confront contemporary art. This is a state of "not knowing", of "not understanding", of being disorientated or challenged by the unfamiliar. One of my responsibilities as a curator is therefore to remember that a visitor encountering an unfamiliar work of art in the museum is likely to be as unprepared as I was in the studio. But I've come to realise that it's precisely when I am most challenged in my own reactions that the deepest insights emerge.
For many years, and like many British people, I had little feeling for the most expressive and roughest form of early twentieth century European painting, the expressionism of German artists around the First World War like Kirchner.
The argument that new vision becomes the reference point for the future, is a line that I have been driven to use on many occasions.
Craft, I would argue, is not an essential part of art, though skill is. That skill may indeed find its expression in draughtsmanship or carving, realised through the hand of the artist, but it may also be directed towards the selection of material or the choice of an expert fabricator.
I have never really understood the objection to art which is specifically made for a gallery or museum, and so cannot be collected by an individual or taken home. It is rather like saying that all music should be confined to the chamber work or novels to the short story.
But when the artist abandons visible appearance, as in Mondrian's black grids on white grounds filled with balancing rectangles of colour, many people feel left behind. And yet the rhythms of Mondrian are those of nature. The harmonies are those which guided proportion in classical buildings and Renaissance churches. Rothko's glowing maroon Seagram Murals at the Tate may, like Turner's late canvases, appear to be "of nothing" but in their brooding depth Rothko suggests another world. As one four year old child said of the Rothko room at the Tate "it makes me think of God".
An honest curator will admit that judgement is fallible, especially for art made yesterday.