Introducing 'The Art Society'

May 11 2017

Image of Introducing 'The Art Society'

Picture: Art Society

NADFAS (the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies) is to rebrand itself 'The Arts Society' this month. More here.

Art and poetry

May 10 2017

Video: ArtUK

Art UK has commissioned four poets to respond to paintings in the UK public collection. Generally, I think it's better when poets allow others trained for the purpose to actually deliver their poems - that is, usually, actors. But Sophia Thankur, in the video above, is astonishing; what a poem, and what a performance! See if you can watch it without crying.

More here

Changes at the Scottish National Galleries

May 8 2017

Image of Changes at the Scottish National Galleries

Picture: BG

The final changes to the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) management structure have been announced. The Times covered it last week, as did the Herald. Sadly, it's in danger of being both a bureaucratic mess, and a two-fingered insult to the majority of staff at the Galleries. The staff, including some very senior ones, are not at all happy about the changes. Personally, I think the changes are mistaken, and reflect not only muddled thinking by the Director General, Sir John Leighton, but also (more alarmingly) the weakness of the trustees. They have not sufficiently challenged Sir John's plans, and have ignored the concerns of the wider staff. Perhaps the most worrying thing is talk of a new climate of fear within the Galleries, with staff frightened to say anything that might be seen as questioning the new direction. 

Before we go into the changes in detail, a quick recap. The National Galleries of Scotland is the umbrella body which runs the three ‘National' galleries in Edinburgh; the National Gallery (Old Masters and Scottish Art up to the 19th Century), the Portrait Gallery, and the Gallery of Modern Art. AHN discovered last year that the position of Director of the National Gallery was to be abolished, and that a new post of Director of Collection & Research was to be created instead (more on that person in a moment) across all three collections. You can read more about why I and others think abolishing individual directors is misguided here, from back in January. The story was also covered in The Sunday Times.

We now know more about the management changes. This new Collection & Research post will oversee the whole collection - Portrait, National and Modern - with the intention of effectively merging the collections, and ending the distinction of the three galleries as separate buildings. Furthermore, a new senior management team of five will now run the organisation, and - crucially - this will mean a demotion for the surviving directors of the Modern and Portrait galleries, Simon Groom and Christopher Baker respectively. They themselves, thankfully, have not been abolished, but will no longer be directors of an actual institution. Groom and Baker will no longer be part of the senior management team. Instead, they will become directors of 'modern and contemporary art' and 'historic art and portraiture’. This is therefore the first time that the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the world’s first purpose built portrait gallery, will no longer have a dedicated director (or ‘Keeper’ as they used to be known). Frankly, I think that's a backward step - these institutions need to led by individuals of expertise and flair, not committees. 

The senior team used to consist of Leighton, Chief Operating Officer Nicola Catterall, Keeper of Conservation Jacqueline Ridge, an acting Director of Public Engagement, and the three gallery directors. Now the team will be Leighton, Ridge, Catterall, with the new Director of Public Engagement (Jo Coomber, who was previously Marketing Director of Dobbie’s Garden Centres here in Edinburgh), and Professor Christopher Breward, the new Director of Collection and Research (who was until recently the Principal of Edinburgh College of Art). Breward’s role will be to lead "on all aspects of the development, research and use of the NGS collection across all our sites, our national and international partnerships and online activities.” Breward is highly rated, and will doubtless be a Good Thing. But for what it’s worth, there will be nobody on the senior management board who has expertise in Old Masters. I think that's a sad thing for Scotland's national collection.

In effect, the new title for Groom is a continuation of his present responsibilities, in terms of the actual collection. But Baker benefits from a territorial expansion, if not a management promotion; he will assume responsibility for the pictures that used to be in the National Gallery, which we must now grimly learn to call 'historic art’ up here in Edinburgh. Of course, many pictures in the National Gallery (like Raeburn's Skating Minister) are also portraits, so I presume a distinction will have to be made within collection management between portraits that are of important national sitters (which should be in the Portrait Gallery) and portraits that just happen to be nice pictures (like the Skating Minister). You can see already what a muddle this is all likely to become...

What is the point of all this? It is, as Sir John says in the Times:

[...] to "unleash creativity" [and to] encourage curators to think creatively about their programmes and encourage “fluidity between subjects and disciplines” [...] 

He said he saw the reach of the national collection extending far beyond the gallery buildings in Edinburgh to a global audience of six billion who have access to the internet. Sir John added: “We are not disrespecting disciplines. We are saying that knowledge and expertise is attached to the collection, not contained in four walls. That is liberating.

If anyone can tell me what "fluidity between subjects and disciplines" actually means, I'd be grateful. I think it's what happens when curators, which Sir John used to be (and by all accounts a good one), read too many management books. I've never met a curator whose knowledge and expertise is just confined to the four walls of their collection. I think to suggest to a curator that the only way they can think more creatively is by effectively abolishing their institution is more than patronising.

What I can tell you is that the abolition of dedicated directors of the separate institutions is already having a negative impact. The National Gallery itself is now a Marie Celeste-like institution, with no director and no curators in it (they’ve been moved elsewhere, permanently). Above is my photo of part of the National Gallery taken recently. On the left you can see the Skating Minister, which frames a doorway with another Raeburn. But behind it is a selection of Dutch Golden Age pictures. This is not some new philosophy to merge periods and schools in the National Gallery, but a hodge-podge short term hang, to accomodate the fact that the Scottish picture galleries have been closed for refurbishment. Rather than use this opportunity to arrange a thoughtful re-hang of the main galleries, which are designed to display and follow a chronological hang around the building beginning in the 15th Century and ending in the 19th Century, visitors are now faced with a jarring clash of Dutch 17thC pictures, Scottish 19thC pictures, and Italian 18th C pictures all in close proximity (see below). It’s a mess (the Deputy Editor could do better). But sadly it's the sort of thing actual visitors in the actual galleries will have to get used to, now that the NGS is focusing on 'fluidity' and warbling on about ‘online’.* The former National Gallery director Michael Clarke would never have tolerated such a hang. The former Director General Sir Timothy Clifford would have exploded if he'd seen such a thing on his rounds. More people visit the galleries in person (2.2m) than online (1.6m), so it's sad to see the priorities of these actual visitors (the ones who spend the money in the shops, and benefit the Scottish economy) being relegated behind the quest for more virtual visitors.

Anyway, I think the saddest part of all this is the way the staff and curators have been treated. The latest Times coverage (which, curiously, repeats a quote I gave to the Sunday Times some months ago, but making it appear as if it was a new quote) mentions one anonymous source as saying the changes have caused a ‘gnashing of teeth’. But that’s understating it. There is deep concern at the new direction, and the clear relegation of curatorial expertise in favour of marketing and other priorities. You’ll note that nowhere has Sir John said anything about the positive effect these changes will have on the basic things art galleries should do well, like exhibitions. That’s possibly because he knows it will now be harder for an enthusiastic curator to drive an idea for an exhibition through the increased layers of bureaucracy. Most disingenuously of all, Sir John has attempted to say that his staff are supportive of his changes, and that they have responded with ‘great enthusiasm’. This is simply not the case. I don’t personally see how a leader who has so comprehensively lost touch with his employees, and indeed in many cases lost their confidence, can continue in his post.

Finally, I’m told there was some probing within the National Galleries of Scotland as to who the source was for my initial story, with suspicion falling on a particular senior member of staff. That fact alone tells you about the dysfunctional relationship between some management and staff. I’m glad to clear this up; my initial source was at trustee level. I have never met or spoken to the person under suspicion. The fact that this matter was even discussed within NGS makes me feel uneasy. No institution can ever hope to flourish in an atmosphere of paranoia. That said, I'm told the NGS has for some years now been an institution that refuses to tolerate dissent. Someone should tell Sir John that if he really wants to 'unlease creativity' then all he needs to do is let his staff and institutions have the freedom to do and say what they think best.

Update - I wonder what the financial saving would be of abolishing the Director's General's office, and the senior management team. Significant, wouldn't you say? Now, ask yourself if the mission of the three National Galleries in Scotland would be detrimentally affected by not having a layer of management above them, and being free to operate with increased autonomy. If you still need reassuring that this would not be a crazy idea, ask yourself if, in London, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and Tate would ever want to be subservient to, say, The National Galleries of England? Why do Scotland's three comparable national galleries need to be run as one homogenised group? It makes you wonder if all these changes are an attempt to justify the Director General's existence. 'I alone...'

Update II - a rummage around the NGS' website and the minutes of trustee meetings tells us all we need to know.

First, the key motivation behind the 'one collection' policy seems to have been driven by, yes, 'branding'. In late 2015 the NGS began a comprehensive new 'brand strategy', which you can read all about here. Note that the word 'art' does not feature at all in the text. Instead it's all about:

The brand project, which began in February, is part of a number of interrelated projects currently underway at NGS, including the development of a new business plan and audience engagement strategy and a thorough review and rebuild of the galleries’ website.

[...] the ambition is that the brand strategy will also become a daily, living guide for decision making for all the staff whatever their focus – whether they are planning an exhibition, conducting a performance review, developing a new partnership or creating a retail strategy – these are all ways in which they will engage with and develop the galleries’ audiences.


This relies on the galleries having a coherent and relevant story to tell and a shared sense of direction on the inside, from which they can build clarity and distinctiveness and loyalty and conviction on the outside, making the brand transformative both on the inside and outside.

If you're a curator, that's a pretty depressing statement; next time you think of an exhibition, you must make it fit 'the brand strategy'. Naturally, an external branding consultant was hired for all this, JWA. That's what organisations and leaders who don't have the confidence of their own convictions do; get someone else in from outside to tell them what to do. I wonder how much that cost.

In response to this branding review, the Trustees, at a meeting in June 2016, were:

[...] supportive of a move towards the vision of ‘one collection’ to ensure NGS was in a position to meet the demands and challenges for the next generation.

Then, at a trustees meeting in November 2016, the trustees were updated on the 'Management Changes':

The Director-General detailed progress with the changes to management structure. The Senior Management Team had discussed and approved the changes. The Director-General had also met with curators to outline the plans for a new Director of Collection and Research. The plans were being shared with the rest of the staff at briefing sessions over the following two days.

The timeline for implementation was July 2017, by which time the new director would hopefully be in place. This was an important aspect of delivering the brand strategy. [my emphasis]

And then at the trustees meeting in January this year, after the Sunday Times had reported on the proposed management changes, this chilling note in the minutes:

Management Structure

In the event of external comments or queries, the Chairman reminded trustees to emphasise their full engagement and commitment to the re-structure. 

The chairman was Ben Thomson. 

So there we are; decades of history, sound practice and staff contentment all junked on the high altar of 'branding'. And what branding! It seems extraordinary that the solution to having three distinct and accessible brands - the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, and the Gallery of Modern Art - was abolish those brands, and instead muddy the waters by focusing on an entity that only exists in abstract, the National Galleries of Scotland. 

Update III - I'm told at least one very senior member of staff is looking to leave the NGS as a result of all this. 

Update IV - you should hear what former senior NGS staff have to say about all this. Some of it's unprintable.

*Incidentally, the new NGS website is already excellent.

'The Art Detectives'

May 8 2017

Picture: Acorn TV

I've just found out that 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces', the series I presented on BBC4 last year with Jacky Klein, has begun to be distributed overseas. Lucky AHNers in New Zealand can watch the series here. And if you're in America then you can watch it here

Because 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' doesn't sound particularly international, the title has been changed to 'The Art Detectives'. Hope you enjoy it!

Update - it's also in Australia on Foxtel; check out the trailer above.

Mellon Centre acquires Sewell archive

May 8 2017

Image of Mellon Centre acquires Sewell archive

Picture: The Times

Great news that the archive of the late, great Brian Sewell has been acquired by the Paul Mellon Centre in London. It's not yet catalogued but is already available to researchers. How's that for good art historical service? More details here

Man slashes '$3m painting'

May 8 2017

Video: Live Leak

There's something rather odd about this attack on a painting by Christopher Wool in an art gallery in Colorado. More here

Tate's new £1.5m 'British Impressionist'

May 8 2017

Image of Tate's new £1.5m 'British Impressionist'

Picture: Guardian

Tate Britain has unveiled Le Passeur (1881) by William Stott of Oldham. It shows two girls waiting for a ferry on the Loire, and was well received when exhibited at the Paris Salon. Bravo to the HLF, the Art Fund and the Hintze family for contributing to the £1.5m needed to secure the picture. The purchase was actually announced last year, but the media's attention was directed towards Tate's acquisition of their first painting by Joan Carlile. Perhaps this time the now obligatory woman posing in front of the painting (and with someone wearing a similar dress to the girl shown waiting for the ferryman) helped attract photo editors' eye'. Full story in The Guardian here.

'Michelangelo & Sebastiano' (ctd.)

May 8 2017

Image of 'Michelangelo & Sebastiano' (ctd.)

Picture: NG

The National Gallery in London has just announced a two-day conference to discuss its Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition. It's on 23rd-24th June, and tickets range from £75 to £30. Keynote speakers are Professors William E. Wallace and Paul Joannides. Full details here (and the NG asks you to note that "three papers in the afternoon session on Friday 23 will be presented in Italian. Extended English abstracts will be provided for these papers.")

Art History toys (ctd.)

May 8 2017

Image of Art History toys (ctd.)

Picture: Faller

Some years ago I brought you news of a Playmobil set featuring Albrecht Durer. A reader has now discovered that the model makers Faller in Germany do a very fine scale model of Durer's house. Available here

Job Opportunity!

May 8 2017

Image of Job Opportunity!

Picture: Viking Cruises

Viking Cruises are looking for a resident historian/art historian. You need to spend eight weeks on board at a time, and the first task listed on the Association of Art Historians website is to give a weekly lecture. The only catch is that the "Presentation material and associated teaching notes will be provided by Viking". So you're just a performer, basically. 


May 8 2017

Image of Apologies

Picture: BG

I'm sorry for the scarcity of news last week - I was on the road for telly purposes. One exciting moment involved filming the most exciting (and reassuring) cleaning test I've ever seen. More news soon, I hope.

This is not Shakespeare (ctd.)

May 3 2017

Image of This is not Shakespeare (ctd.)

Picture: AHN reader

Yikes - someone has gone to the trouble of making a bust of the Cobbe portrait. It's been on display at the Globe Theatre in London. More here

Ed Sheeran portrait at the NPG

May 3 2017

Image of Ed Sheeran portrait at the NPG

Picture: PA

The National Portrait Gallery in London has commissioned a portrait of 26 year-old pop singer Ed Sheeran. I'm not entirely sure why.

More here

Charles Saumarez Smith's new book

May 3 2017

Image of Charles Saumarez Smith's new book

Picture: John Sandoe

Regular readers will know that AHN is an admirer of all things Charles Saumarez Smith, and in particular his blog. I mentioned before that it is being turned into a book, and you can now order a copy here, should you be tempted. I am. Also, in the Evening Standard yesterday I chanced upon an interview with him, in which he reflects on his time at the National Gallery:

At the National Gallery, where Saumarez Smith became director in 2002, there were further triumphs, including the saving for the nation of Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks. But there were signs of dissent among the staff and, in 2007, Saumarez Smith announced he was moving to the RA. What happened?

“Well, at the National Gallery there’s a tradition that the director is a sort of super-curator, above all other curators. I’m not that and never pretended to be. I felt the curators looked down on me because I hadn’t been to the Courtauld; I’d merely been to the Warburg, which was a kind of lesser place. I was, in inverted commas, a cultural historian. So I was made to feel not very comfortable.”

There's a saying in academia that the politics are so brutal because the stakes are so small. I think you can say the same about museums. 

Trump's new threat to the arts? (ctd.)

May 3 2017

Image of Trump's new threat to the arts? (ctd.)

Picture: Met Museum, detail of Rubens' 'Atalanta & Meleager'

I mentioned last month President Trump's planned abolition of one of the main government arts funding bodies, the NEA, and what that would mean for museum exhibitions in the US (in summary, very bad news). Happily, one of the many climbdowns Trump has made in his budget negotiations with Congress means that the NEA has survived. The Art Newspaper gives us the lowdown:

A bipartisan spending bill that is expected to be passed by the US Congress this week not only preserves but increases funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The NEA and the NEH are both set to received $150m in 2017, a $2m boost over last year. The Institute of Museum and Library Services will also see a $1m increase in its budget, bringing it to $231m, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will also keep its funding.

The agencies were among 19 independent federal offices facing the axe under President Trump’s proposed budget this year, which aimed to siphon more government spending towards defense at the expense of many popular public programmes. There was widespread criticism of the plan from arts groups as well as from Republican politicians like former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and New Jersey Congressman Leonard Lance. 

The new Congressional deal avoids a threatened government shutdown by providing funding through the end of the fiscal year on 30 September. 

Trump's new threat to the arts? (ctd.)

May 3 2017

Image of Trump's new threat to the arts? (ctd.)

Picture: Mail

Apparently Trump's family commissioned a portrait of him as President before he even won. It's by someone called Craig Campbell, who according to the Mail is "considered one of Scotland's leading portraiture and figurative artists". More here

What a difference a hat makes

May 1 2017

Image of What a difference a hat makes

Picture: Sotheby's

If you were impressed by the $10m Govaert Flinck sold in New York last week, but don't fancy spending quite as much, then the above portrait by Flinck is being offered by Sotheby's in London on Wednesday (in their mid-season Old Master sale) for £20k-£30k. A snip!

Ok, there's more to it than just the presence of a fine red hat, as seen in the New York picture. But the disparity in price is one of the reasons why I find the Old Master market so exciting, and mysterious. Because value is often so dictated by image - say, an interesting or attractive sitter in a portrait, as opposed to ugly sitter - it's sometimes possible to find as good a demonstration of an artist's technical virtuosity in a painting for £20k as you'll see in painting that costs $10m. 

You can browse the rest of the sale here. There are some fine pictures, including this handsome portrait (see, even I'm swayed by image) by Hoppner of Sir George Murray, one of Wellington's key generals. That seems cheap at £15k-£20k. Hoppner seems under-valued these days. 

Update - the Flinck made £75k. The Hoppner £56k. AHN always picks winners...

Christie's New York Old Master sale (ctd.)

May 1 2017

Video: Christie's

Christie's Old Master sale in New York seems to have performed well. The pre-sale estimate was $18m-$28m, and the final total was $32.76m. Granted, the latter figure includes buyer's premium, and the extraordinary $10m result for the Govaert Flinck sale I mentioned last week. But it's still a respectable figure for Christie's new April sale (they used to be in January, alongside Sotheby's), and the total also reflects well on Christie's new team in the New York Old Master department, which is led by Francois de Poortere (seen in the video above). In recent years Christie's New York sales have not fared well

Aside from the Flinck, the top-selling picture was an altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, which until recently has been on loan to the Met in New York. There, it's distinctive appearance (as the video above explains, in the 18th Century part of the painting was scraped down) made it a popular exhibit. Some might say that a period of loan to an institution like the Met made the picture valuable, and helped it sell for nearly $9m. But I'm not sure museum exposure always works like that. After all, does a painting become a great painting because a museum exhibits it - or does a museum exhibit it because it's a great painting? (Incidentally, isn't that a good video; clearly explaine, brief, good close-ups. That's all you need.)

Other lots to note; the newly discovered Titian I mentioned earlier didn't quite beat expectations, selling at $547k against an estimate of $600k-$800k. Happily, the sleuthing buyer who spotted it in a sale in Switzerland still came out ahead. A painting by Lancret, Autumn, only made $1.2m, which represented a full 50% below the lower estimate of $2m - though it still set a new auction record for Lancret apparently. Another auction record ($511k) was set for a picture by Michaelina Woutiers for this rather unconventional Portrait of a Lady. A St Barbara by Francesco Francia made $1.44m (est $500k-$600k). You can see the full results here

'Picturing Places' at the British Library

May 1 2017

Video: BL

The British Libray has launched a new section on its website, 'Picturing Places', which allows you to:

Discover the role and history of topographical views, maps and texts through over 500 examples from the British Library’s collections and beyond, with fresh research in over 100 articles and films from an academic conference hosted by the British Library and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

Above is a video of BL staff digitising a giant map. More here

A museum director's commute

May 1 2017

Image of A museum director's commute

Picture: FT

In the FT, Dr Gabriele Finaldi discusses his daily commute into the National Gallery, and how he keeps up to date with the art world via publications such as The Burlington (AHN does not get a mention; can you believe it?). His commute into London is via train, and naturally, London being a city that is now consuming itself, a seat is rarely available. By contrast, Finaldi preferred his commute in Madrid, which was by motorbike:

I was a keen moped rider in Madrid and I miss it. You can zip around quickly and stop off to buy bread or pop in to see an auction. But my wife will not let me have one here. I like the freedom of it and the element of adventure — and the guarantee you will be home when you say you will be.

I'm glad to hear of another motorbiking art historian. I think we ought to form a club...

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