As the man who represents the face of contemporary art in London, suddenly you’ve ended up in this old-school institution. How did that come to pass?
I am an art historian by training. I think it’s essential to do art-historical exhibitions in a contemporary way. I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive, contemporary art and historic art. The exhibition programme here is at the centre of it all, but it’s not the only aspect of this place. At the real heart of the Academy are artists. It’s the only organisation of this stature internationally that was founded by and is run by artists, and that physically has an art school at the heart of it. The Academicians are a great sounding board. If you can’t take them with you, you’re doing something wrong.
What made you leave White Cube and do this instead?
I’d been with Jay Jopling for ten years, so probably I needed to do something different. I love White Cube and had a wonderful time there. I’m not sure, though, that the old model of ‘vanguard’ and ‘cutting edge’ applies any more. Increasingly it’s a more pluralistic, multi-faceted, slightly shattered model where commercial galleries are leaner, nimbler, financially more able; consequently, they do some of the most radical artistic projects. The thing I like about the Academy is it’s not hamstrung by public accountability because it’s privately funded. You’d think calling it Royal Academy would mean this is the most Establishment institution of all, and in a way it plays with and on that. But by definition it’s anti-Establishment because there’s no orthodoxy among the artists here. There’s this in-built creative tension, this conflict, that I love. I’m not trying to deny that the Royal Academy has an Establishment twist to it; it was founded with royal assent. But it has a flexibility that belies its name.
The Royal Academy is reputed through Norman Rosenthal to have been one of the principal instigators of the contemporary-art scene.
To a certain extent that’s true. Norman is a visionary and a genius, and I consider him to be one of my mentors. But as he pointed out when we had lunch not so long ago, when he began here in the late ’70s, bar the British Museum, nowhere was really doing major exhibitions. It was more the exhibition landscape that Norman changed in London than the contemporary scene. A New Spirit in Painting, his first major show in ’81, changed the way that contemporary painting was perceived. As for Sensation, no-one denies that it was cleverly opportunistic. There was a gap in the programme; Charles Saatchi had offered his spaces so that the large American Art in the Twentieth Century exhibition could be shown there as well as here. So it was a natural filler. You can’t say it was strategic vision on behalf of the Royal Academy to plan Sensation, but they had the opportunity and ran with it. And they were the engine behind the conditions that led to London finally being able to rectify the disgrace of not having a museum devoted to modern art. Tate Modern, I’ve always said, is a symptom rather than a cause of the changes that went on.
Has London always been a city of cultural momentum?
No. London was underrated. The British cultural establishment was fundamentally literary-dominated. In the last twenty years, the visual has moved much more to the centre. As a society we’re less suspicious of the visual arts. Kenneth Clark, when he was Director in the ’50s of the National Gallery, was airily dismissive of British art. He said that we don’t really have a visual tradition, that we’re a literary nation. That’s pretty amazing, for the Director of the National Gallery to be saying that. Now our self-image is much more visually confident. That momentum gained pace in the ’90s.
Was there a connection between the rise of London as a major financial centre in the ’80s and the sudden explosion of the contemporary-art scene? Did money drive it, at least to an extent?
No. I’m not saying money had no role in it, but I don’t think it drove it. What drove it fundamentally were artists, successive generations but particularly the generation at the very end of the ’80s. That’s how the commercial galleries evolved so successfully. Artists came from different parts of the country to London, but it was that creative melting pot that led it, and that’s where the institutional and financial interests coalesced.
So what happened, did a meteor hit the earth?
No. It was built on the momentum of what happened before. People like Sarah Lucas say that she was very interested in the sculptors who came to prominence in the early ’80s: Bill Woodrow, Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg. Other factors … what the Royal College did in relationship to Pop art … David Hockney … the teaching at Goldsmiths in the ’80s, people like Jon Thompson, Michael Craig-Martin, Richard Wentworth. But you’ve got to commend the receptiveness, in the end, of institutions.
Who were the key individual players?
With a certain distance you realise that there were many people playing a role. I like the group ethos of the YBAs in the sense that there’s very little that binds their work together, but there’s still this sense of supporting each other. I suppose the key player without doubt would be Damien Hirst. He was the visionary who set up exhibitions. Michael Craig-Martin played a great role as a teacher and guru. Nick Serota’s cultural acuity, driving London, using that momentum, seeing it was now possible to open a museum of modern art … of course Nick’s a major player. Norman in his way played a role. Andrea Rose at the British Council did a huge amount. You can’t understate what Saatchi did. The spaces that Saatchi provided up on Boundary Road, artists love that; they’d seen very little like it. He had the vision to bring the best international art on that scale.
What of today’s scene?
It’s a different landscape now. People are looking for history to repeat itself, but we’re in such an expanded and pluralistic landscape that the ways that differences are made are more subtle and more networked. So I’m not thinking about authouring great things. I want this place to be as good as it can be, and I don’t care if I’m seen as the frontman for that or not. If the whole thing was an ego trip I’d be doing something slightly different, because you don’t fundamentally have control of an organisation like this. In the mixed ecology of the contemporary-art world in London, there’s roles for all sorts of people, but I’d much rather be arguing with a governing body made up of artists than dealing with a governing body made of the great and the good.
Why did Tim Marlow end up in London to begin with?
I went to university here. I’ve travelled the world in the last ten years, and I never feel depressed coming back to London. This is a place of immense possibility. It’s the pivotal city in Europe. It’s home. There’s a scepticism in British culture, a sceptical dimension that I like. The English laugh at themselves. I also like the fact that London’s always been this melting pot. Without sounding colonial or post-colonially arrogant, you don’t always have to go round the world ’cause a lot of the world comes to you here.
Do you think that’s one cause of this ferment of creativity?
Yeah. Creativity has been dominated, assisted, inspired partly by people from outside coming to London
You mentioned the group enterprise of the YBAs in the late ’80s. Now it’s very much individualist-driven, underpinned by the power, the pockets, of the galleries that they’re associated with. Or am I wrong?
Yes and no. Some art has been a lonely enterprise; for others it’s been a group enterprise of studio practitioners and assistants and apprentices. When cornered, the arts tend to be supportive. Having said that, I think one of the tragedies in the last few decades is how (wittingly or unwittingly) governments have managed to divide the arts and then to rule them. The arts maybe should be a more collective enterprise when it comes to dealing with politicians.
What places did you visit when you first came to London?
I grew up in Derbyshire and we had a holiday house in Norfolk. Every summer, either from Chesterfield or from Norfolk, we would come to London for a day. That was the thing I looked forward to the most. I first came here when I suppose I was seven or eight, to the National Maritime Museum. I was obsessed with Nelson, so I wanted to see his uniform with the bullet hole in it. Carnaby Street, where I remember coming quite a bit, was way past its heyday; this was in the ’70s. Stamford Bridge … to come up for a [Chelsea football] game was fantastic. And I used to also come up every summer for the Test Match at Lord’s. So it would be for sporting events, but also for exhibitions. I came to see a Stanley Spencer show here at the Academy on a school trip.
You’ve been everywhere, you’re fifty-one. Fast-forward: you’re on your last legs. Where would you like to be buried?
Under the penalty spot at Stamford Bridge would be a pretty good place.
London Burning: Portraits from a Creative City by author & editor Hossein Amirsadeghi, executive Editor: Maryam Eisler, is published by Thames & Hudson on 19 October 2015, £58.00 hardback, www.thamesandhudson.com
All images are copyright Transglobe Publishing.