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Is Maria Balshaw such a good choice for Tate? I tremble for the art I love

19 January 2017

4:30 PM

19 January 2017

4:30 PM

The last couple of years have seen changes at the top of all of London’s major art musuems. In 2015 we saw new leadership at the British Museum and the National Gallery. This year it’s the turn of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate. The change at the top of the Tate is particularly momentous. When the last director Nick Serota was appointed Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister and there was no Tate Modern. Furthermore the directors of Tate Modern and Tate Britain who report to the overall boss are themselves new appointments and almost all senior curators have been appointed since 2012. If there is an institution in flux, it’s the Tate.

It is, however, the V&A who have monopolised the news with the appointment of the former shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, to be director. Some of the art commentariat, including Fisun Guner, are ‘depressed’ and ‘baffled’ at the appointment of this outsider. For others, like the FT’s Bendor Grosvenor, it’s an ‘excellent choice’. Somewhat surprisingly for a politician the odd part of Hunt’s appointment is neither his academic credentials, which are impeccable and relevant (his Cambridge PhD was on Victorian civic pride); nor his public engagement with the arts, he has presented television programmes and put his weight behind the acquisition of the Wedgwood archive for the nation (and the V&A).


Rather, it is that he has no experience running any organisation, let alone one the size of the V&A. That’s a serious consideration but Miliband thought enough of him to want him as education secretary and since the V&A is well run by a good team it’s a steady hand they need and not a wizard. The key part of his job will be to reassure his political masters of the good value of the public services the V&A deliver for Britain and to cultivate private sources of income all of which, with his address book, his chiselled jaw and steady gaze reminiscent of so many American museum directors, he is well set to do.

Maria Balshaw (Apollo personality of 2015) has had a celebrated reign over the Manchester art museums, culminating in the successful renovation of the Whitworth (Art Fund’s museum of 2015).  Unsurprisingly her appointement has not caused much controversy, as the Standard’s leader put it ‘Great for the Tate’. But having visited Manchester over the last few years I am concerned for Tate Britain. Her academic background and the focus of the institutions she has lead are resoundingly international and contemporary; historic art, the crown jewels of our museum collections, can be left behind.

In one especially egregious example a spectacular painting of the crucifixion (attributed by some to Duccio), acquired in 1985 by the visionary director Tim Clifford for the then enormous sum of £1.8 million, has been mothballed. Not having been conscious of gold ground paintings in 1985 I didn’t remember the campaign and so in all my visits to the museum never knew what I was missing; a better informed friend, who pressed for information, found the museum staff had no idea what the painting was, let alone where. I am sure she offers strong leadership in one direction but I tremble for the art that I love.


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