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Do museum directors need curatorial experience?

24 April 2017

The appointment of new directors at many of London’s leading museums has provoked debate about what it takes to run a top institution. Are today’s curators cut out for cultural leadership?

Robert Hewison

During an earlier changing of the museum guard, back in 2000, the then arts correspondent of the Financial Times, Antony Thorncroft, reflected on the skill set needed by a cultural leader: ‘In the past, running the British Museum or the Royal Opera House was a job for a scholar and a gentleman: now you need a market trader’s financial acumen, a gigolo’s charm, and a rhinoceros’s hide.’ He did not say a museum director had to be a curator.

The guard is changing again, and the skill set question is being asked once more. Certainly Maria Balshaw and Tristram Hunt, newly appointed at Tate and the V&A respectively, will need those qualities of financial cunning, social charm and toughness that Thorncroft prescribed, and from personal knowledge I am confident that they have them. Balshaw’s past experience as an academic specialising in visual culture, and as a local director for the now defunct Creative Partnerships scheme, does not include the title ‘curator’, but her running of Manchester’s Whitworth and City Galleries, and work as Manchester’s director of culture, certainly qualifies her for her present position. Hunt – a champion of the threatened Wedgwood Museum in his last job as an MP for Stoke-on-Trent – is certainly no curator, but as a 19th-century historian he qualifies as a scholar (and is a gentleman).

Balshaw’s appointment is a vindication for the Clore Leadership Programme, set up in 2003 by the philanthropist Vivien Duffield (and based on recommendations made in a report that I co-authored with John Holden) in response to the very crises of leadership that had provoked the changing of the guard at the turn of the century. In 2004, Balshaw was one of the first cohort to receive a year’s training in cultural leadership. The course was both bespoke, in that the individual development needs of each Clore Fellow were attended to, and collective, in that Fellows were recruited from both the performing arts and museums, and the time spent together created a bond that has significantly increased the resilience of the cultural sector.

One of the implied questions in the brief for designing the Clore programme was ‘Where will we find the next Nicholas Serota?’ That question has been answered, but Balshaw will establish herself by being the present Maria Balshaw. She is not the only museum director to emerge from that cohort: Axel Rüger went on to run the Van Gogh Museum; Kathleen Soriano went to Compton Verney, became director of exhibitions at the Royal Academy and is now chair of the Liverpool Biennial; and Nick Merriman became director of Manchester University Museum – and Balshaw’s husband.

What sort of training should the Clore Leadership Programme be giving to future museum directors now? Thorncroft’s prescription still applies, but I would add the need for a politician’s guile. Museum directors need to be able to manage upwards as well as downwards, to seduce their board and please their government paymasters. Thomas Campbell’s sudden demise as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York appears to have been caused by the withdrawal of board support.

But do they also need to have a curator’s care? There is a tendency for curators, because they handle precious objects, to become precious themselves. The object is all, and the public a menace. The costive curator sits on the collection, thwarts loan requests, and would really prefer it if the public, like the collection, were kept in the dark. (Even worse is the controlling conservator, who must be wooed to surrender objects, literally, to the light of day.) Curators sometimes seem to be academics who hate people.

Scholarship, like material culture, is priceless, but both need to be communicated to have true public value. Of course museums must have care for their collections, but they are held in public trust, and the public must be trusted to enjoy them. Fortunately, a new generation appears to understand that, and there are curators who have moved from passive preservation to active interpretation and creation. At last, to curate is becoming an active verb. Turn curators into communicators, and museum directors will look after themselves.

Robert Hewison has curated exhibitions at Tate Britain, London, the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, and the Ruskin Library, Lancaster University.

Nicholas Penny

Among museum professionals, a curator has for many decades been understood as someone who is responsible for the care, display and interpretation of specimens, artefacts, or works of art in the permanent collection of a museum or gallery. During the last 20 years, temporary exhibitions have become increasingly central to the activities of almost all institutions of this kind, and many curators are now largely absorbed by the mounting of such exhibitions. Curators are only likely to attract media attention by this means, and such impresario curators are almost always the ones who are proposed as future directors. Indeed, a curator is now more commonly understood to mean someone who organises temporary exhibitions of the visual arts, whether in a private or a public institution.

It has often been argued that senior administrators are better qualified than traditional curators to serve as museum directors, but nowadays the trend is to appoint impresario curators, preferably those who are comfortable with contemporary art and, if a new building is planned, have some confidence in dealing with architects. Directors with no curatorial experience and without the related expert knowledge of art tend to diminish the value of such experience and expertise out of their own insecurity. The results can often be devastating, even if, being of little interest to journalists, whose attention is usually focused on the exhibitions programme, they generally go unnoticed by the public.

There are fewer internationally recognised experts among the curators of London’s museums than was the case 25 or 50 years ago. The curatorial staff in regional museums in this country possess only a fraction of the knowledge of their collections than one would have found then. There are major North American museums in which only one curator cares for the historical collections, where there were formerly four or five. At the convivial gatherings of international museum directors that I attended between 2008 and 2015 the voices of directors who openly disparaged the scruples of traditional curators and the concerns of conservators were increasingly confident – and indeed the original motive for such gatherings was precisely to make international lending easier, that is, to promote the increasing emphasis on loan exhibitions within institutions that were formerly chiefly associated with permanent collections.

Senior administrators have not often been appointed as directors, (although, as mentioned, their eligibility has often been discussed) but their status within the museum hierarchy (which includes IT, HR, PR, and many other new growths) has increased hugely and they will be detected in the shadow of any impresario director. Sometimes they are loyal, self-effacing and truly efficient. The model, significantly, is one which is more common in the performing arts. Curators are thus ‘relieved’ of many of their former responsibilities, encouraging the trend whereby some become ‘scholars in residence’ and others concentrate on exhibitions. The admirable special training now available in both in the US and the UK to equip curators with more experience of administration and management has been designed to combat this state of affairs, and excellent directors will be found among the curators who have benefited from such courses. But there is no reason not to look elsewhere as well. In the 19th century it was widely believed that any director of the National Gallery in London must be a practising artist, and the same applied in equivalent institutions throughout Europe. It is easy to imagine – and should not be so hard to find ­– a director with an academic background, especially perhaps a historian, who values the experience and knowledge of his or her curators.

In a large museum with many different departments a curator will be suspected of having a prejudice in favour of her or his own special field of experience and expertise, or at least an inclination to give priority to art over archaeology, for example, or modern and contemporary preference over everything else. Even in a gallery with a collection consisting only of European art there are often no curators with the wide interests and sympathies that would enable them to assess the needs of the collection as a whole. The necessary range may also be more easily found outside the curatorial body. On balance the rise of the impresario director should be seen as more of a threat than the appointment of someone without traditional curatorial experience.

But a threat to what? To the ideal of the museum and gallery as something created for posterity and not merely for today’s public (or the youth of today); to the ideal of the museum as a place to transcend the fashionable rather than to revel in it; to the ideal of the gallery as a place where repeated contact with the permanent collection is carefully balanced with the attractions of temporary exhibitions; to the ideal of museums and galleries as places where people can educate themselves, places which are therefore equivalent to libraries as well as to theatres.

Nicholas Penny was director of the National Gallery, London, from 2008 until 2015.

From the May issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.