News Column

Commentary: Worrying art gallery departures

June 24, 2014

Jonathan Jones

They're doubtless cheering in the world of scholarship. The announcement yesterday that the director of the National Gallery, Dr Nicholas Penny, will retire once a successor is appointed next year means that one of Britain's best art historians will be able to get back to writing books.

Before he took on the job in 2008, Penny wrote and co-wrote outstanding books about the history of taste, the materials of sculpture, the art of Raphael and the National Gallery collection itself. Walking around the National Gallery collection with him was a dazzling experience as he revealed layer on layer of erudition about its masterpieces and, for that matter, lesser works.

Yet Penny is leaving the gallery he loves after just six years in command - he previously excelled as a curator there - and only a couple of weeks after Sandy Nairne, his opposite number at the National Portrait Gallery, also unexpectedly announced his departure.

Both are successes. Penny, although sceptical about "blockbuster" exhibitions, presided over the National Gallery's biggest ever hit show, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, and last year saw the gallery get record attendances.

His biggest achievement, however, has been to enrich the permanent collection and improve its display. Because he managed to get Titian's Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (shared with the Scottish National Gallery), he will be remembered as one of the National's great directors. Masterpieces of that calibre have rarely entered our public collections since the days of Victorian wealth.

Meanwhile, Nairne has turned the National Portrait Gallery from a parochial portrait collection into a place where outstanding exhibitions of Lucian Freud or Gerhard Richter rub shoulders with works such as the Van Dyck self-portrait bought this year. He has totally transformed my expectations of a museum I used to think frankly stupid, and now hugely respect.

I think it is very worrying that two such talented museum directors have apparently had enough. Ultimately, their dignified departures are personal matters and their own business. But it must be getting harder to run a big London museum.

The capital is famous for art in a way it has never been before, and tourists flow ceaselessly through its galleries. There's a media assumption that every exhibition should be a hit, a political belief that galleries should provide not just well-run collections but entertainment and education for everyone. Publicity and accessibility are everything.

Nicholas Penny and Sandy Nairne are characterful people with ideas about art. Is that kind of originality being driven out of a museum world driven by increasingly populist expectations and, at the same time, shrinking budgets?

Are we about to see a new technocrat generation of museum bosses who keep their heads down, put PR first and do all they can to meet goals defined by politicians and the press?

This year has seen a taboo broken when a critic actually called for a museum director to be sacked because of (supposed) poor attendances. That kind of pressure doesn't exactly leave much room to experiment.

Museums cannot just be machines for entertaining us. They should have a quieter side where the art comes first, the crowds second, and a scholarly side that reveres someone like Penny.

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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