The Wallace Collection has announced that Xavier Bray, currently chief curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, is to be its next director. It’s a good match: as a renowned specialist in 17th- and 18th-century art, for which the Wallace Collection is famous, and with a string of successful exhibitions to his name, Bray has all the right academic credentials. He also has a reputation for experimentation and risk-taking in curating, which could be exactly what the Wallace Collection needs to reach a wider audience following the reopening of its carefully renovated Great Gallery in 2014.
Bray, a specialist in Spanish Golden Age art, started his museum career as an assistant curator at the National Gallery in 1998, before moving to Bilbao to lead the curatorial programme at the Museo de Bellas Artes. In 2002 he returned to the National Gallery as head of Spanish art, where he curated several major shows including ‘The Sacred Made Real’ – an exhibition of Spanish polychrome sculpture that was a surprise hit with the public in 2009–10. In 2011 he took up the post of chief curator at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, another small but respected London institution that – like the Wallace Collection – boasts an impressive collection of Old Master paintings, a significant historic building, and an institutional legacy that continues to define how it operates today.
Bray’s curatorial leadership at Dulwich has coincided with a dramatic increase in visitor numbers and a string of highly regarded temporary exhibitions – not least the acclaimed Ravilious retrospective last summer, part of the museum’s ongoing ‘Modern British’ series that has given Tate Britain a run for its money. The success of the exhibition programme has been in spite of – or perhaps because of – its riskiness. Big-name artists such as Warhol and Hockney have featured in the line-up (displays of the artists’ prints were staged in 2012 and 2014 respectively), but others such as Prud’hon or Murillo are not as well known to the British public as they might be.
But what has really characterised Bray’s work at Dulwich is his willingness to experiment with the building and permanent collection itself. Last year, contemporary artist Doug Fishbone arranged for one of the gallery’s Old Master paintings to be replaced by a cheap Chinese copy, and issued a challenge to the public to spot the imposter. Bray had a hard time getting the project past the museum’s trustees, who feared reputational damage, but the ‘gimmick’ paid off. Visitor numbers increased over its opening period (even allowing for the success of the Ravilious exhibition, which overlapped with it), with more people than ever dwelling in the permanent galleries. For his presentation of Murillo’s work in 2013, Bray made an even bigger intervention, transforming the building’s famous enfilade into an approximation of a Sevillian church, in order to display a set of Murillo’s religious paintings in their intended configuration.
The Murillo exhibition was a project of considerable ambition: a public spectacle with real art-historical value, of the sort that has come to characterise Bray’s curatorial career. His most recent project, an exhibition of Goya’s portraits at the National Gallery, brought together an unprecedented number of the Spanish artist’s works, including some that are supposedly unavailable for loan. It was a popular hit but also an extraordinary feat of diplomacy.
This sort of ambition and creative thinking, while working within the bounds of a traditional collection, will be required at the Wallace Collection. The challenge for any new director here is how the modern museum negotiates the historical stipulations of the bequest made by Lady Wallace in 1897. The museum cannot add objects to its collection – although it has built the ‘Hertford House Historic Collection’ as an adjunct to the Wallace Collection itself – and it is unable to loan artworks to other institutions or store them offsite.
Whatever the merits of this arrangement for the integrity and care of the collection, it unquestionably limits the institution’s participation in partnerships with other UK and international museums. Exhibition projects have sometimes been mooted, and even announced, before quietly dropping from the schedule (such as a proposed exhibition on Renaissance Lisbon in 2014–15). The Wallace Collection can neither raise funds through loaning works to other museums, nor stage the type of paying exhibitions that bring in repeat visitors and provide an important revenue stream at other national museums that do not charge for entry to their permanent displays. This is an obstacle to an institution that may wish to diversify its funding model in the years ahead.
Linked to this challenge is the matter of spatial constraint. Hertford House is a unique building for the presentation of a unique collection, and is rightly treasured as such. But the basement galleries, which opened in 2000, provide limited opportunities for temporary exhibitions; they are bathetic spaces when contrasted with the grand settings of the permanent collection. An ambitious new director will need to find imaginative solutions if he is to bolster the museum’s programme without compromising the singular character of the place.
With additional comment by Thomas Marks.