Ever since Mr Blair’s New Dawn of 1997, the dominant idea in public policy towards public collections has been ‘access’. The doctrine is more than half-right: art, antiquities etc paid for by the public are not doing their work unless we can see them. But it has promoted the heresy that the person chosen to run every museum must be a communicator rather than a scholar. Actually, both is best. True, some learned persons are interested only in objects and cannot communicate with the human race, but the best evangelisers for a museum or gallery are the people who really know its contents. The best-known current example is Neil Macgregor, at the British Museum. So it has been a great frustration that the most knowledgeable and eloquent art historian of my generation, David Ekserdjian, has not — so far — been made head of any great collection. When he has got close, as at the Ashmolean, it has been held against him that he has not run a museum already (his career has been mainly academic), trapping him in a vicious circle. As anyone who saw his Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy will understand, Ekserdjian’s eye and his gifts of persuasion in getting people to lend things are astonishing. So are his gifts of exposition. As for his knowledge, it is so prodigious that it would make a good television programme — show him a photograph of a tiny fragment of a putto’s wing in the corner of some painting and he will say at once, ‘Ah yes — Tiepolo’s Assumption in the baptistery of St Maria del whatever.’ When the distinguished Nicholas Penny steps down from the National Gallery next year, Ekserdjian ought to be the obvious candidate. Possibly our strange culture renders him unobvious, but that does not stop him being the best.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 9 August 2014