London’s Leading Museum Directors Exit In Droves

London Museum Directors

Do I detect a pattern here? There is an exodus afoot amongst the highest echelons of museum management; in the past twelve months the resignations have been announced of Nicholas Penny (National Gallery), Sandy Nairne (National Portrait Gallery), Penelope Curtis (Tate Britain), and now the biggest of the cheeses: Neil MacGregor of the British Museum. This is not a case of incompetency. Far from it: the institutions above have been successful in a seemingly impossible balancing act, maintaining audience figures and attendance, curatorial and artistic integrity, and the prestige of presenting art and heritage to a global audience. All without the life-blood of the entrance fee. In fact, the only figure of the above who fell short on this act was Curtis at the Tate, with Waldemar Januszczak making himself the first critic to call upon the resignation of a curator for poor attendance figures and curatorial decisions that frankly appear totally batshit crazy on paper (‘Art Under Attack’; ‘Ruin Lust’; ‘Folk Art’, and now the much derided Victorian showcase ‘Sculpture Victorious’.)

So what is it driving the directors out when they have hitherto been so successful? MacGregor has polished the gleaming halo of the British Museum with well curated and presented studies, attendance figures up nearly 50%, and the contribution of the meta-exhibition ‘A History of theWorld in 100 Objects’ achieved the rare goal of communicating the significance and meaning of artefacts to new and wider audiences in a wholly unbiased, intelligent and thoroughly absorbing way. It should be alongside Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ for its parallel impact on art historiography.

Similarly, Sandy Nairne has managed to make a relatively unlikely gallery a major player in contemporary exhibition making, with its own acclaimed shows in the form of David Bailey’s ‘Stardust’ and exceptional studies of Lucien Freud and John Singer Sargent. It was rewarded with a third increase in attendance figures. Nicholas Penny, though sceptical of blockbusters, nonetheless was responsible for the National Gallery’s immensely successful Leonardo da Vinci show, amongst other acclaimed projects including Michael Landy’s ‘Saints Alive’, Veronese and Rembrandt.

Yet all three have faced major internal problems, not least with major funding cuts right left and centre: much has been made of Penny’s ok-ing the decision to outsource staffing to external security companies, and how this practically equates to the privatisation of the public institution. Staff strikes and demonstrations have been disastrous for PR, as has the debate surrounding sponsorship: BP oil anyone? Similar gripes with British Museum staff abound, and not much has been made – tellingly – of the disastrous and non-publicised opening of the Exhibition Wing at the British Museum, seen by many as poorly planned and a missed opportunity. Likewise MacGregor leaves without ever really giving a definitive role to the old Reading Room. Against this backdrop Tate Modern’s expensive new wing appears a wholly inappropriate erection (pun absolutely intended).

With a plethora of jobs going (though you wouldn’t want to touch Simon Thurley’s soon to be vacated English Heritage seat in anticipation of its great schism – more on that later..) many curators will be buffing up their CVs. It will certainly be a turbulent landscape given the tightening of purse strings, and the possibilities for imaginative curating seem limited. Witness poor Penelope Curtis, whose singluar brave forays into left-field curating have led critics to rain down on her like so many ridiculous Victorian salt sellers. Are we to see a dawn of cold hard crowd pulling blockbusters with any deviation condemned?  

 Artbytch © 2015


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