Nick Penny announced that he is stepping down as head of the National Gallery. Next door, at the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne also announced that he is leaving. Could he be after the job at the NG? Nick Penny’s predecessor, Charles Saumarez Smith, came from the NPG but his lack of knowledge about the NG collection is said to have led to an internal curatorial mutiny. Sandy Nairne could also be said to lack the knowledge of the collection necessary to do the job well. Furthermore, he is not currently popular with lovers of the gallery, some of whom believe that his dogged pursuit of the overpriced Van Dyck self portrait – an attractive work of so-so importance – came at the expense of a transcendentally great group portrait by Le Brun that has now gone to the Met.
The internal candidate is deputy director Susan Foister. Those with longer memories will remember her excellent 2007 exhibition of Holbein in England. Those with shorter memories might get stuck on the more eccentric qualities of Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance, which she curated this year. It is thought to be unlikely that she would want the job but she undoubtedly knows the gallery, its ways and its people, as well as anyone alive.
However, if an internal appointment is unlikely, there are a number of curators formerly with the gallery in the running.
Gabriele Finaldi, deputy director of the Prado. Dulwich college educated Finaldi knows the collection intimately and he is particularly well attuned to the conservation aspect of the job. Last time the job came up he had the bad fortune to be up against Nick Penny but this might be his time. Finaldi is rightly viewed as an extremely strong candidate and coming from a high profile job clearly enhances his prospects.
Another man in a big job with a strong international record is the director of the Van Gogh Museum, former NG curator of Dutch paintings Axel Rüger. After a period with an Italianist director it may be that the trustees feel it is time for a Dutch specialist. Rüger also has strong US relationships, and with Mark Getty as chief trustee and the huge importance of the US friends of the gallery – whose support has brought the transforming Bellows painting – that could be key.
The FT suggested Xavier Bray, currently at Dulwich Picture Gallery. While I do not think he is a likely candidate, the jump from chief curator at Dulwich to director of the National Gallery being perhaps a bridge too far, his NG exhibition of Spanish baroque art, The Sacred Made Real, was exceptional. Like Nick Penny, Bray is viewed as being slightly reserved, and while he may well be a future director, the trustees may want to see Bray, who is in his early 40s, excel at another big job before handing him the National.
Finally there are two candidates who I hope will put their names forward.
David Ekserdjian, of this parish and a former NG trustee, would be a popular choice. The outstanding scholar of the group, he wears his scholarship lightly and his Royal Academy exhibition, Bronze, communicated effervescent intelligence and unabashed pleasure in its subject. He also has an easy charm and would make a happy atmosphere for a gallery that can be known for its tensions. It is not known if he will put his name forward but he did recently apply for the Ashmolean directorship where they preferred a younger candidate. If the trustees go for proven wisdom, Ekserdjian would be a most happy selection. On the other hand Kenneth Clark was 30 when he was made director.
If youthful energy is the most important criterion the undoubtedly brilliant Xavier Salomon, in his mid 30s, fresh from the glory of curating the magnificent Veronese show, would be an extraordinary catch for the gallery. Seen by many to be the outstanding curatorial hope of his generation Salomon has only very recently been appointed to be chief curator of the Frick. Nevertheless the opportunity to come young to the National Gallery and to shape its future could be the sort of once-in-a-lifetime chance to tempt Salomon away from New York. A man of great charm and eye-watering energy he would make a superbly imaginative choice.
Jack Wakefield is a freelance art consultant and writer
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