Veteran curator who has been with Tate galleries since 1987 will become first Briton to head successful showcase of contemporary artists
Frances Morris is well respected in the art world and has been with Tate for nearly 30 years. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Mark Brown Arts correspondent
Friday 15 January 2016 15.14 GMT Last modified on Friday 15 January 2016 19.07 GMT
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A curator who has been at Tate Modern since it opened in 2000 will be the first woman and the first Briton to head the gallery when she takes up the role of director later this year.
It was announced on Friday that Frances Morris, Tate Modern’s first head of displays, will replace Chris Dercon, who leaves this year to take charge of Berlin’s experimental Volksbühne theatre.
Morris becomes the fourth director of Tate Modern after the Swede Lars Nittve, the Spaniard Vicente Todoli, and Dercon, who is Belgian. Some observers had expected Tate to once again recruit from elsewhere in Europe or from the US – instead it chose an insider, someone steeped in Tate culture and well known and respected in the art world.
Morris, 57, was head of displays between 2000-2006 and then director of collection for international art. She takes over in a pivotal year for the gallery with its new £260m extension due to open in June, giving Tate Modern, already the world’s most visited museum of modern and contemporary art, 60% more gallery space.
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Morris said she was thrilled to be appointed at such an exciting time for the museum. “Tate Modern is a truly unique institution and I have been privileged to have been part of the team from the very beginning.
“An incredible collection, amazing artists, extraordinary colleagues across Tate, brilliant supporters and wave upon wave of appreciative visitors have given me many creative opportunities and memorable experiences.”
Her boss for nearly all her Tate career, the Tate galleries director, Nicholas Serota, said: “Frances Morris is an innovative thinker who has shaped and developed Tate’s international collection, firmly establishing Tate Modern as one of the foremost contemporary and modern art galleries in the world.
“She is widely respected internationally for her flair, expertise and clarity of vision. She will lead the new Tate Modern into the next era.”
Morris joined Tate as a curator in 1987. In her leadership jobs at Tate Modern she has been instrumental in developing the gallery’s international reach and its representation of female artists, said Tate. She has curated three major retrospectives of female artists at Tate Modern: Louise Bourgeois in 2007, Yayoi Kusama in 2012 and Agnes Martin last year.
Morris studied history of art at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute of Art before working at the Arnolfini in Bristol. After joining Tate she curated shows including Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism, at the Tate Gallery, as it was known then, in 1993.
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Earlier this week Morris announced that the 10-storey Tate Modern extension would contain an Artist Rooms hub gallery with works by Bourgeois the first to be exhibited. Phyllida Barlow would also be the 40th artist to join the Artist Rooms collection.
It was no coincidence that they were both women, she said. “We feel very committed to recognising women’s achievements and it’s true to say that women’s achievements in the arts for many years have not been recognised … We’ve tried to bring out of the shadows people who have been overlooked.”
The appointment of Morris was greeted with enthusiasm, with the Guardian’s art critic Adrian Searle praising her as someone who “knows the score, cares about the art, no pushover, has opinions”.
South London Gallery tweeted: “Fantastic news, Tate has appointed a woman as Director for Tate Modern. Congratulations to Frances Morris!”
Her appointment fills the two Tate gaps created last year when it was announced that both Dercon at Tate Modern and Penelope Curtis at Tate Britain were, coincidentally, moving on. Alex Farquharson became director of Tate Britain late last year, joining from Nottingham Contemporary, the gallery he led as founding director from 2007.