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June 2015

Vol. 157 / No. 1347

Changes of direction

In recent months the media has had a field day in reporting and commenting on the merry-go-round of resignations, retirements and appointments at major London galleries and museums. It is indeed a turbulent period, a macedonia of congratulations, sorrow, expectancy and Schadenfreude. The appointment of a new director brings a particular institution under the spotlight and  suggestions on possible future conduct come from all sides. The resignation of a director is a trickier problem, for the reasons behind it are rarely disclosed or are given only a bland gloss in a press release: much more lies behind an outgoing director’s ‘wish to move on to different challenges’. It should not be forgotten that new directors can make little public impact in the early part of their tenure, particularly on matters such as the exhibition ­programme, scheduled well before their arrival. Getting to know personnel, methods of business, the unexpected quirks of curators, committees and trustees are all a priority. Everyone associated with the museum will want a piece of the new director, to have his or her particular attention and approval. This intensifies over time as staff get to know a director’s strengths and weaknesses. This is apparent in Frederick Wiseman’s film on the National Gallery, released last year. We see Nicholas Penny, now the ­outgoing director, dealing with tricky problems of publicity and marketing in his inimitably sceptical way, as well as with gloomy ­financial reports. We also see him in eloquent flow in front of a Poussin and an audience of well-heeled Gallery supporters. Here are the twin peaks of such a role – administration and scholarship. We also witness some depressing marketing ploys being fielded to him and hear of the importance of the Gallery’s audience as an equal partner of the curators. Lipservice was paid to the ‘beautiful’ exhibitions and their ‘fine design’ (this was filmed before the ­Rembrandt show last year) – but, asked the PR representative guilelessly, how does the Gallery connect with the public?

Nicholas Penny inherited a number of problems at the ­National Gallery and some of these will be passed, torch-like, to his successor, Gabriele Finaldi. They include a less than happy curatorial staff, several of whom have since left the Gallery; an ­exigent marketing department; the still intractable temporary exhibitions space in the Sainsbury Wing basement (and the ­continuing problem of what to display in the first gallery, immediately ahead of the main stairs); the current strike action by non-curatorial staff at the Gallery over privatisation by the ­management; some ropey exhibitions (German Renaissance, Seduced by Art, Viennese portraiture) among the memorable ones (Leonardo, Barocci, The Sacred made Real), and, as ever, strenuous private fundraising in the face of continual grant-in-aid cuts. The purchase of the two great Sutherland Titians in 2009 and 2012 was a triumph but it emptied the acquisitions budget. Subsequent additions have been less than enthralling – a contextless George Bellows and a minor Wilkie. Bequests of Italian paintings from Denis Mahon and nineteenth-century paintings from Simon Sainsbury and Lucian Freud have helped to redress the balance.

Fortunately, Gabriele Finaldi will not be unfamiliar with the problems and tasks piled on his desk, for he is a former member of the Gallery’s curatorial staff and has been rightly praised as Deputy Director at the Museo del Prado where tradition and innovation have been perfectly balanced. He will certainly wish to continue the high standards of catalogues and scholarship that Nicholas Penny has notably maintained.

Around the corner from Trafalgar Square, the new director of the National Portrait Gallery, Nicholas Cullinan, will be assessing the achievements and plans of his predecessor, Sandy Nairne, at this curious but increasingly popular institution. It has had a relentless programme of exhibitions and displays in recent years, particularly of photography; these might well be pruned. Most urgent is a hard look at some sections of the permanent hang which are ripe for refreshment, especially the Weldon Galleries for the Regency-period portraits, designed and installed in 2003. This was in Sandy Nairne’s first year as director. For all his ­modernist credentials, he will surely be remembered for exhibitions such as that devoted to Thomas Lawrence and for the successful campaign he headed to purchase Van Dyck’s late self-portrait, a magnificent addition to the collection.1

The Tate presents particular difficulties, nearly all of which stem from its division into Tate Modern and Tate Britain fifteen years ago. The former has, of course, been a conspicuous success if only on the level of a top tourist attraction; its series of notable exhibitions has made up for the deficiencies of parts of its ­permanent hang. Tate Britain has struggled on with the more ­limited remit of showing British art from five centuries. Now, within a short time of each other, the directors of both institutions have announced their resignations. At Tate Modern Chris ­Dercon, who will leave in 2017, has hardly made good his earlier perceived shortcomings at the Munich Haus der Kunst and at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

At Tate Britain for the last five years, Penelope Curtis has had what can only be termed a rough ride, especially over the alarmingly seesaw quality of exhibitions she has overseen. Under her aegis, Tate Britain was ambitiously re-hung, a move that was well overdue. But, as we made clear at the time, the total effect was fractured and ineloquent, a chronological hang with little intellectual or visual aplomb, in spite of many unfamiliar works brought from storage and a few show-stopping moments.2 But more than most national schools, British art is a matter of striking individuals, and their contribution was often dispersed and diluted. The new director must surely re-think parts of this hang so that cardinal figures such as Hogarth, Gainsborough, Blake, Constable, Sickert, Bacon and others are given their due to counterbalance the prevailing feel of miscellaneous ­disorder.

Finally, the most visited institution in London, the British Museum, will see the departure of Neil MacGregor later this year. He is the most high-profile national director we have seen for many years and, as broadcaster, impresario, negotiator and cultural commentator, has reached a very wide general public. His achievements will be marked in this Magazine (of which he is a former Editor) on a later, more spacious occasion.

1     The portrait is on tour to several British galleries and is currently at Manchester Art Gallery (to 31st August).

2     See the Editorial in this Magazine ‘Tate Britain: a question of balance’, 155 (2013), p.451.