Who run the (art) world?

Portrait of an Unknown Lady 1650-5 by Joan Carlile circa 1606-1679
Joan Carlile, ‘Portrait of an Unknown Lady’, 1650 – 55. Bought by Tate in Sept 2016 as part of their efforts to acquire works by female artists for their collection.

There have been recent changes in the public museum/gallery world in London that are worth a blog post with a title paraphrasing Beyoncé. I am referring to who is now in the driving seat, so to speak, of some of the largest public art collections in the UK.

There have been a number of new female directors appointed in the last year or two which has subsequently shifted the male to female ratio when considering the UK’s public art institutions. It was only two years ago in 2015 when Penelope Curtis moved on from her role as director at the Tate Britain and was replaced by Alex Farquarson, which resulted in, according to Mark Brown at the Guardian, all national galleries in the UK being run by men. Brown also commented on the apparent “change of the guard” occurring in Britain’s top national art galleries in 2015 and it would seem that the art world is being re-jigged yet again.

The most recent change you may or may not have seen is the appointment of Maria Balshaw as director of Tate. This is really quite an influential position in the arts – she heads up not only the Tates Britain and Modern in London but also Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool. Quite an empire. Balshaw replaces Sir Nicholas Serota who has held the post since 1988 and done sterling work for the galleries during his tenure, including most recently the impressive Tate Modern extension. He is off to head up the Arts Council England where he will no doubt continue to do great work. Significantly, and perhaps unbelievably, Balshaw will be the first female director of Tate. Ever. Since it was established… 120 years ago.

Let’s turn our attention to Dulwich Picture Gallery’s appointment of Jennifer Scott as its new director. She will be the first lady to head up the gallery since it was founded … in 1817. 200 years ago. After two years in Bath as director of the Holburne Museum, she makes her move to London at a time when there appears to be some shifting going on in the upper realms of the public art world.

To give you some idea, let’s have a look at the wider umbrella of:

“Prominent Women in the Arts in the UK” 

Frances Morris. Tate Modern’s director as of last year.

Jude Kelly. Artistic director of the Southbank Centre, London.

Tamara Rojo. Artistic director as well as principal lead dancer at English National Ballet.

Vicky Featherstone. Head of London’s Royal Court Theatre, London

Josie Rourke. Head of the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London

Cressida Pollock. Chief executive officer of English National Opera since 2015.

Catherine Mallyon: runs the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) as executive director together with artistic director Gregory Doran.

Erica Whyman. Deputy artistic director at the RSC

Amanda Berry and Amanda Nevill. Chief execs at Bafta and the BFI respectively.

Karen Bradley MP. Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Emily Eavis. Co-organiser of Glastonbury.

Lists are all well as good but there is always the danger the pendulum can swing too far the other way. At the end of the day it’s more important who’s right for the job, regardless of gender. But it is encouraging nonetheless to see more and more ladies stepping into the limelight.

There are more changes in the public gallery and museum world that are worth noting, stemming from the world of politics as opposed to gender.

Tristam Hunt (MP as was for Stoke on Trent Central since 2010) will soon take hold of the reins at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Ken. He steps into the shoes of Martin Roth, whose reign over the museum brought in the some of the highest visitor numbers. The Alexander McQueen retrospective ‘Savage Beauty’, for example, was seen by half a million visitors from 87 countries (the most visited exhib. in the V&A’s 145 year history).

Some of McQueen’s designs included in the blockbuster V&A exhib.

Roth’s resignation came on the back of the referendum when Britain voted in favour of leaving the EU. Being the first foreign director at the V&A, he expressed his disillusionment at the outcome of the referendum and took the decision to return to his native Germany to continue his career.

Hunt is to inherit a healthy museum with the V&A being voted UK Museum of the Year in 2016. He has, however, also voiced that he is in favour of paid entry to public galleries whereas now they are all free – with a large, suggested donations box in central foyer. The V&A were quick off the mark to assure the public the museum would stay free entry to visitors despite the speculation about their new boss.

With the changing political climate in the UK at the moment, paired with the appointments of new, exciting and perhaps, at times, surprising, gallery and museum directors, it is inevitable that there is change in the air of the public art world. Not only are women more prominent than ever before in the influential public art institutions but this goes hand in hand with wider calls for equality (as seen with the worldwide women’s march earlier this month) as well as great political upheaval.

Women's March On London
The National Gallery acted as a backdrop for London’s Womens’ March 2017

Whether we like it or not, there is always crossover in the venn diagram of politics and art. Hunt’s jumping ship takes the two spheres one step closer and whilst he is arguably more of a historian of Victoriana, there’s no denying that Brexit will have its influence in the art world as much as anywhere else.

This does not necessarily mean doom and gloom or that the trumpet blowing angels are due to descend from the heavens. Far from it. Fingers crossed that the changes to come to the Nation’s wonderful art institutions will have a positive effect and create opportunities within the art world that we perhaps haven’t foreseen.

Unfortunately, scientists have not confirmed the use of an accurate and functioning time machine, despite the high demand, so we shall have to wait and see what happens.


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