The last director?

November 30 2016

Image of The last director?

Picture: Edinburgh Evening News

In September this year Michael Clarke retired as Director of the Scottish National Gallery. He had been director since 2001 - and an excellent one - having first joined the gallery in 1984. Many notable successes were achieved during his time in charge, including the acquisition of the two Sutherland Titians for £100m in partnership with the National Gallery in London. 

I have been waiting to do a 'job opportunity' post for some time. But there has been no vacancy listed on the SNG website. This is unusual, and a few weeks ago I asked the SNG press office when the vacancy might be listed. I was told the following:

The Trustees and management at the National Galleries of Scotland are currently considering how best to replace Michael Clarke following his recent retirement.

I have since learned, however, that Michael may in fact have been the last director. A 'management restructure' is under consideration, which would see the role of director abolished. I am not sure what will replace it, but it seems it may become a more general collections manager type of position.

We should avoid rushing to judgement, but to be honest I can't quite see why the trustees are considering this suggestion even for one moment. It is essential for great institutions such as the Scottish National Gallery to have a dedicted director, a leader who can inspire staff, invigorate audiences, and act as a recognisable ambassador for the collection. Of course, directors must also be a respected scholar in their field. Such people are not always easy to find.

The situation is made a little more complicated here by the fact that the Gallery is only one part of the National Galleries of Scotland structure, which also runs the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. This organisation has its own leadership team, with a Director-General. Personally, I would prefer to see each individual collection have more autonomy, and having individual directors is surely essential to this.

Another thing to consider is the fact that the curatorial staff at the Scottish National Gallery will no longer be based in the gallery itself, due to a redevelopment to expand exhibition space. Instead, the curators will be given office space in the Modern Art Gallery (in the basement, I gather), which is about a ten minute drive away. More display space is always a good thing, but in the long-term it must be a shame for curators to be physically removed from the collections they're charged with looking after, researching, and promoting. Add into this dislocation the abolition of the post of Director, and one can begin to fear for the future vibrancy of this important institution. We cannot let it become something that is just 'managed'. It has to be led, with conviction, expertise and passion.

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