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Top tips for the Tate leadership

30 September 2016

Tate’s longstanding director Nicholas Serota is stepping down in 2017 to head up Arts Council England. Over the past 30 years, he’s transformed Tate into an influential museum franchise and carved out an extraordinary cultural leadership role for himself in the process. Which begs the question of who can fill his shoes. We’ve laid out a few of the more likely candidates…

Frances Morris

If Tate wants an easy handover, then nobody is in a better position to take the reins than Frances Morris. She’s been employed by Tate for nearly 30 years and her promotion to director of Tate Modern this year leaves it in no doubt that Serota himself approves of her leadership. She stepped into the role just in time to open the gallery’s Switch House extension, and seems to be relishing the spotlight, setting out a clear and reforming vision for Tate’s flagship space: better representation of women and non-western artists; more visibility for new media art; and ambitious education and outreach programmes. Could she have designs on the rest of the franchise, too?

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

Christov-Bakargiev is no stranger to managing an institution or two: in January 2016 she became the first person to direct both of Turin’s major art institutions – Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna (GAM) and the Castello di Rivoli (where she has worked as both a curator and interim director). But Christov-Bakargiev is also one of the world’s most high-profile international curators, working with some of contemporary art’s biggest names and organising ambitious exhibitions – from the Sydney Biennale (2008) to Documenta 13 (2012) and the Istanbul Biennial (2015). If Christov-Bakargiev’s theory-led approach doesn’t get in the way, then Tate could do a lot worse than this no-nonsense leader – particularly one also known for celebrating artists outside the mainstream.

Ralph Rugoff

A former critic and director of London’s Hayward Gallery since 2006, Rugoff has worked hard to revive the fortunes of this space. He has made it stand out in a clogged gallery landscape by mounting large-scale installations and emphasising art’s participatory potential (think ‘Psycho Buildings’ (2008), Carsten Holler (2015), and his current off-site ‘The Infinite Mix’) – something that might chime with the recently launched Tate Exchange. Given his comments in 2013, ‘Tate Modern is like the Bluewater Shopping Centre’, Rugoff could also be the person to make some big changes: ‘Sometimes when I’m in Tate Modern I feel like I’m going from one more or less identical neutral room to another.’

Maria Balshaw

Balshaw already runs two museums – the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester City Galleries – so running the Tate should be well within her range. The much-praised Whitworth redevelopment has displayed Balshaw’s talent for fund-raising and her energetic approach makes her an important cultural figure on the national stage. But with Greater Manchester set to gain more autonomy next year, will Balshaw want to leave at such an exciting time?

Alex Beard

Few people know how the Tate works as well as Alex Beard, who was Tate’s deputy director from 2002 until 2012, and before that the director of finance and administration. Beard has been the chief executive of the Royal Opera House since 2013, successfully running a once-troubled institution. If the Tate is looking for a chief executive to oversee and steer a complicated organisation – while giving the directors of each of the Tate galleries the space to flourish – Beard would be the obvious choice, though as a self-confessed ‘music person’, he may already have his dream job.

Iwona Blazwick

The director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery is one of the most respected figures in the contemporary art world and a former Tate insider – she was the director of exhibitions and display in the late ’90s and responsible for the Tate’s groundbreaking thematic hang of its collection. Blazwick has kept the Whitechapel at the forefront of contemporary arts programming, and encouraged international links, while anchoring the gallery in the local area – a feat that all of the Tate galleries need to pull off. And the path from the Whitechapel to Tate has been a successful one, as Nicholas Serota has proved.

Wim Pijbes

Nobody would have thought the former general director of the Rijksmuseum a runner for the Tate job a fortnight ago: he had just opened the Museum Voorlinden, a new museum near Rotterdam, having been appointed to his ‘dream job’ as its founding director. But after less than three months in that role, Pijbes announced that he was stepping down, and in doing so he has presumably waltzed on to the Tate’s shortlist. His track record at the Rijksmuseum was impeccable, not only in overseeing the reopening of the museum and the launch of new spaces – not the least of them digital – but also in establishing himself as one of the leading international thinkers on the future of museums.

Nicholas Cullinan

Cullinan has long been tipped for the top job at the Tate, and not least because of the plaudits he gained as a curator at Tate Modern from 2007–13. There, he worked closely with Nicholas Serota on some of the standout exhibitions of the last decade, among them ‘Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons’ (2008) and ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ (2014). But perhaps the Tate directorship has come up at the wrong time for Cullinan: he has only been in his current role as director of the National Portrait Gallery since spring 2015, and will surely want to make his mark on that institution before setting his sights elsewhere.

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor

The director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney is a long-distance candidate but no stranger to the UK art world. The Dundee-born curator has worked at the Scottish Arts Council and Arts Council of Great Britain, and presided over Birmingham’s Ikon gallery from 1989 until she accepted her current role in 1999. In Sydney, she’s emerged as a prominent figure, whose most celebrated achievements at the MCA – free public entry, new commissioning, outreach and travelling programmes, and a redevelopment project – chime in well with those of Tate. She’s no stranger to the thorny side of cultural leadership either: recent debates surrounding Transfield Holding’s sponsorship of Sydney’s cultural venues, including the MCA, have their echo in the BP sponsorship row over here.

A move from the market?

Could the Tate job go to a candidate whose chief experience was in the field of art business rather than museums? Frieze boss Matthew Slotover and White Cube founder Jay Jopling are among the names to have been mooted in art world circles, although Tate’s appointment committee would undoubtedly court controversy if it went down the entrepreneurial route. Then again, during his long tenure at the Tate, Nicholas Serota has devised a cultural management role that is quite unlike any other in the world – and one whose scale and remit are far greater than almost any other museum directorship.