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Apr 2 / Simon

Michael Compton

Published 02/08/2013
Michael Graeme Compton, CBE, contemporary art curator and administrator, was born on September 29, 1927. He died on July 12, 2013, aged 85.

Pioneering director at the Tate who tried to involve the public in contemporary art – sometimes with alarming results
Michael Compton’s philosophy was that a contemporary art gallery was like a party where the guests do not know eachother very well, and the curator’s task was to introduce the public to the art and help them find something in common. “You hope that a sort of conversation develops”, he said, and as the Tate Gallery’s first Keeper of Exhibitions and Education he helped change the way the world was shown and therefore saw contemporary art.

His mission almost came horribly unstuck in 1971, however, when an exhibition that Compton curated with the critic David Sylvester of the work of the minimalist and conceptualist Robert Morris had to be closed three days after it opened when several people had been injured. The exhibition was an early experiment in participation in which the Duveen Galleries at what is now Tate Britain were transformed into a kind of adults’ adventure playground with huge installations including beams, weights, platforms, rollers, tunnels and ramps made from recyclable material such as scrap metal and plywood, on which they pushed, pulled, climbed and leaped. First aiders had to deal with splinters and sprains and minor cuts when visitors became “over-exuberant” – an ambulance was even called – and Compton was obliged to close it for fear of worse injuries. “I really ought to have been sacked for it”, he said. “I personally had completely miscalculated the response of the public. I was just utterly wrong”.

But what he had proved against others’ expectations was that the public can and will respond to contemporary art, and far from sacking him the Tate’s director, Sir Norman Reid, merely made Compton write a report on what had happened which Reid himself signed and presented to the trustees. Compton heard no more about it, and the exhibition was successfully recreated at Tate Modern with more user-friendly materials for a Bank Holiday weekend in 2009 as bodyspacemotionthings.

In fact Compton, who has died at the age of 85 of congestive heart failure, was one of the architects of the modern Tate, creating both an exhibitions department and an education department for the first time, and championing contemporary concepts of art such as minimalism, pop art and conceptualism.

Michael Graeme Compton was born in 1927, the son of a locomotive engineer stationed in India where Michael and his brother Christopher spent much of their early lives. He began training as naval architect in Glasgow, but dropped out of his course to study philosophy. He discovered art history and, after a few months spent “going to the theatre and drinking in Soho”, studied at the Courtauld Institute. After graduating and while waiting fror a curatorial post, he dabbled in publishing, his wife’s family business – he had married Susan Benn in 1952 – and in 1954 went to work at Leeds City Art Gallery, cataloguing watercolours. He then moved to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool for two years.

In 1960, aged 32, he became director of the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull which had a generous endowment allowing him to do what he believed to be a curator’s vocation, to create collections, and he never had a purchase request turned down. It came as shock when he arrived at the Tate in 1965 as assistant keeper of modern art, under Ronald Alley, to find that curators would put up ten works of art a month to the trustees for purchase and would be allowed to buy only two or three of them a year.

Compton had been put nominally in charge of the Tate’s library and education activities, education being largely gallery talks by curators and guest speakers. Other national and major regional museums, such as the V&A, had small education departments, but he saw these institutions as having been set up to be didactic while the Tate was distinctly created as a collection whose proselytising would have to be unique. There were some star lecturers, including Lawrence Alloway, who invented the term “pop art”, Alan Bowness, the future director of the Tate, and Laurence Bradbury, who had his own shoal of lady groupies that attended every performance.

Compton went on a tour of the United States partly to explore developments among artists, but mostly to find out how education was tackled in public galleries there. He found that “docents” – art-educated enthusiastic volunteer teachers – were widely used, and imported the idea to the Tate for which he recruited 24, almost all women, working directly with works of art.

In the late 60s he and the painter and teacher Lawrence Gowing were asked to prepare a new layout for the Tate, and they agreed that what was needed was a dedicated exhibitions department – the Tate mounted few of its own temporary exhibitions then, leaving that to the Arts Council which put on up to five a year before moving on to the new Hayward Gallery – and an education department because, they believed, the Tate was a collection that needed to be explored by both cognoscenti and the less well-informed, which included schoolchildren. Their proposal was accepted by the trustees and in 1970 Compton found himself in the new role of Keeper of Exhibitions and Education, two sub-departments that he had to invent. His title was later changed to Keeper of Museum Services, ”which people thought very funny because they associated it with toilets”, he said. He remained a curator at heart, though, and in 1980 curated the exhibition devoted to Marcel Broodthaers, the Belgian poet, photographer, film-maker and artist, ansd frepeated the exhibition in Minneapolis in 1989.

In making his contribution to the planning for the Tate extension, which opened in 1979, he found existing plans were purely architectural; he felt that no consideration had been given to the visitors that would use it, and had studies made of the habits of gallery-goers (he was fascinated to find that British visitors tend instinctively to go left on entering an exhibition and walk clockwise around a gallery while non-British viewers go the other way), and he had his findings incorporated into the gallery design. He even included a space where artists could create site-specific work, a new notion now at the heart of Tate Modern on a much grander scale in the Turbine Hall.

“Michael Compton was arguably the first curator working in England to command international respect for his practice as a maker of exhibitions, collaborator with artists and contributor to the discourse of contemporary art,” said Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate. “In the 70s and 80s he was a part of the growing exchange of ideas and exhibitions between England and continental Europe and he can now be regarded as a model for many of today’s curators”.

Michael Compton retired in 1987 and was created a CBE in the same year. He is survived by his wife, Sue; daughters Jo, an education consultant, and Ann, the art historian; three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.