The last director? (ctd.)

January 6 2017

Image of The last director? (ctd.)

Picture: nationalgalleries.org

My story from a few weeks ago about the apparent scrapping of the post of Director at the National Gallery of Scotland has been picked up by The Sunday Times. We now know a little more about the plans: there will be no dedicated director of the National Gallery. Instead, there will be a single Director of Collections and Research for all three Scottish national galleries (Portrait, Modern and the National Gallery). This director of Collections will answer to Sir John Leighton, who in turn is the Director-General of the Scottish National Galleries, which is the umbrella body for the three galleries in Edinburgh

There are two surviving current directors of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art. But these will also (we assume) eventually cease to be, and the new changes effectively herald a demotion for these posts. In turn, the individual curatorial teams are also effectively being demoted a level within the organisation.

This is slightly more than a Scottish-centric story, because it goes to the heart of how major institutions will be run in the future. Essentially, it's a battle between bureaucrats and curators. 

The point of these new plans is to, according to Sir John as quoted in The Sunday Times;

[focus] on the collection, rather than the buildings, to raise the NGS profile as a “powerhouse for art and culture in Scotland” in a changed world and boost training and development.

Working as a single collection and a single team “will help us to place even greater emphasis on the collection as a national resource to be used across Scotland, internationally and online”.

In talks with staff over two months there was “quite a lot of enthusiasm”, he said and adamantly denied it was a cost-cutting measure.

First, I don't think anyone has ever accused the National Gallery of Scotland of only being focused on its building. So that's a curious statement to make.

Second, from everyone I've spoken to, or heard from, there is in fact precious little enthusiasm for these changes. I gather something similar was tried seven years ago, but was seen off internally. The retirement of Michael Clarke as director of the National Gallery has evidently been seized as a moment to try again.

Third, I'm trying to imagine anywhere else in the world where 'a collection' is easier to promote and market without being clearly attached to the building which houses it. Yes, online collections are wonderful. But mentally and physically we still visit the building. The Louvre is the Louvre, the Hermitage the Hermitage, and so on. It seems to me (and for what it's worth also the three former national museum directors I have spoken in the last few days) that trying to promote a collection rather than an institution is a very difficult challenge. For what will be, in practice, the new 'home' of the Scottish National Galleries collection; a website? How do you market that? (Incidentally, the SNG website is excellent already). 

The plans were criticised in the Sunday Times by the former director of the Portrait Gallery, Dr Duncan Thomson, who said the changes were:

a “misguided attempt” to treat three different institutions as one.

And I agree with him. The immediate danger in the National Gallery, now that the curators there have been removed from the building itself pending relication to another permanent facility, is that it will become a sort of cultural Marie-Celeste. I think it's a shame that Scotland's national gallery will have neither a director leading it or curators in it.

But if you like to see these things as businesses to be managed, then I can just about see the logic of treating the 'Scottish National Collection' as a single entity. It will look neater on a managerial flow chart. But that in effect was what was happening already under the overall leadership of a Director-General, to whom the three existing directors answered.

Instead, the new changes seek to pretend that the three distinctive national galleries in Edinburgh are mere geographic sites. The plans ignore, for example, the fact that the Portrait Gallery, which was the world's first purpose built portrait gallery, has its own traditions, collection and collecting ethos. I understand that the current director of the Portrait Gallery, Christopher Baker, will become 'Director of Portraits' for the National Galleries of Scotland collection - that is, anything that happens to have a face in it. If true, this move rather misunderstands the point of a National Portrait Gallery. 

As I said in the Sunday Times, it seems to me that galleries flourish when directors and curators have more autonomy, not less. Introducing another layer of bureaucracy will diminish curatorial independence and, in the long term, lead to less innovative and exciting institutions. I can't personally see the point of squeezing everything into one entity. Would the Tate, and London's National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery ever agree to be merge as one institution? The last two are so close together they share a roof.

Here's a small but interesting demonstration of how the single entity approach doesn't always work; on Twitter, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery doesn't have its own account, but operates under the combined National Galleries Scotland Twitter account (yes I know, all these Scottish national galleries are very confusing). In order to emphasise what it actually is, the Portrait Gallery has to include in all its tweets a separate hashtag, '#ScotPortrait'. The same goes for the Modern gallery and the National Gallery. It would be better, surely, for these institutions to have their own Twitter account. And perhaps even their own directors. 

Doubtless I'm being a reactionary stick in-the-mud. I'd be interested to hear your views.

Update - a reader writes:

well done for commenting so eloquently on the misplaced restructuring of the three Scottish National Galleries. This plan is typical of the current Scottish Government's "collectivisation" mania - a blatant cost cutting exercise obfuscated by use of glib management language, all designed to eliminate vestiges of professional autonomy and leadership. Please continue to offer your influential voice in commenting on this disastrous plan which as you suggest will greatly reduce the identities of these valued institutions. 

Update II - they're looking for a new chair of trustees at the National Galleries. The deadline is 31st January if you're interested in launching a coup. Apply here.

Update III - a former museum director writes:

[...] without dedicated directors how can the galleries speak as equals to their counterparts in other countries, something which is so important? [...]  As merely a part of some management structure one could in no way carry the same weight.

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