How is it to be back at the National Gallery, now as the Director?
Thrilling, after 13 years away. I have been devoted to the institution since I was a child and it is very exciting to be here at this moment.
First of all the sheer beauty and quality of the collection. Second, the remarkable link between the National Gallery and the public. The public feel very much that this is their Gallery and that creates a very exciting dynamic. Third, the collection allows some fascinating research and exhibition projects.
What is different from the Prado in Madrid, where you were Deputy Director of Collections and Research, and the Louvre, which are also state museums like the National Gallery?
In France and Spain they talk about state galleries and museums, here we talk about the National Gallery. It belongs to the nation. The collection was established in 1824 for the public, and it belongs to the public by Act of Parliament. It started with the acquisition of a private collection and soon other gifts were made. It was decided that a new home for the gallery would be built in Trafalgar Square, in the very heart of the city. Part of the Gallery’s success with the public is location, and very specially the fact that it is free to visit. These are two very important elements – the Gallery was created for the people of these islands and it is free. There is a sense of possession that people feel, and the fact that it is free makes it possible for many people to visit the gallery frequently.
Is there a big discussion about free entrance and who defends this freedom?
It has political support from every party and is part of the Government’s manifesto.
So you are similar to the National Gallery in Washington?
Similar, but they are practically fully funded by the U.S. Government. Here we have Government funding of about two thirds of our costs. The rest we make up for with ticketing for exhibitions, sponsorship and membership, and other commercial activities.
There is no large museum in the world that makes a profit?
Our job is not to make money, but to look after and display the collection, for study, research, education and pleasure.
In your new job what do you have to do?
The Gallery has a tradition of doing its job well. My job is to ensure that the Gallery remains an extraordinary resource for people, and contributes to the debate about who we are and what’s important in our society. To ensure it is a place that continues to do important research and develop public and international relations.
Are you going to make physical changes?
The Gallery is now visited by nearly 6.5 million people a year, the third most visited museum in Europe after the Louvre and the British Museum. That is an extraordinary responsibility and it is a challenge to provide a high quality experience of the great art in the collection to so many people. We create the circumstances for the experience to be extraordinary for them. Some of the collection is readily appreciated, but what pictures talk about is often complex, and a lot of mediation is required so that the works can speak to a contemporary audience. We are not just about old paintings, but great works of art about human experience, life and death, conflict, family and friendship, the role of the individual, faith and belief. In many ways the issues that we face today are not new, and paintings tell us about how they have been confronted often in the past.
How many works of art are there in the collection?
Just under 2,500 pictures, actually it is quite a small collection. About two thirds are on display.
How many are masterpieces?
There are several in every room, but we are not afflicted by having one great icon like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. We have lots of centres of attention, the Van Eyk Arnolfini Portrait, the Piero della Francesca Baptism, the Velasquez Rokeby Venus, Michelangelo’s Entombment and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
Do you have space for further acquisitions?
The level of excellence is so high that a new painting has to be very extraordinary.
In today’s market Old Masters are a bit out of fashion and therefore cheaper compared to some contemporary artists. Is it a good moment to buy?
In relative terms they are cheaper. A Rembrandt costs less than a Francis Bacon, but great masters are still expensive and that is why museums are often not in the running for their purchase. However the Gallery is occasionally able to make remarkable acquisitions, such as the two Titian “poesie” which belonged to the Duke of Sutherland (acquired with the National Gallery of Scotland), or very recently the gold ground panel by Giovanni da Rimini of about 1300, acquired thanks to a gift from Ronald Lauder, the American philanthropist and collector.
Is it part of your job to find supporters and benefactors?
A good number of people are keen to support us in many ways, to run education programmes, to buy pictures, to refurbish the building. They are both necessary and also help to reflect the role of civil society in the functioning of the institution.
As tastes vary and old masters are not well favoured at the moment how does this affect the Gallery?
The visitor figures have increased. It’s not so much about a contrast with contemporary art as that you can’t underestimate the attraction of great artists. People are looking for extraordinary experiences and, when you step through the door of the National Gallery, in a few instants you are standing in front of the most beautiful things ever made by human beings. They become contemporary when viewed by us in this moment in time.
Do exhibitions like the Goya portraits now on show bring many people?
Exhibitions are a way to focus public attention on a particular artist. They explore new aspects of the history of art and they create the excitement of an event. The gather people together in large numbers and the media is interested. They often serve to open new windows on artistic experience. Most of the Goya pictures were never seen in London before. No one has ever focussed on Goya as a portrait painter. You can see an artist you thought you knew in a quite different light.
What projects for new exhibitions are on your calendar?
In the Spring we have an exhibition on Eugène Delacroix and his profound influence on modern art up to Matisse and Kandinsky. In the Summer a show called Painters’ Paintings, the pictures that artists collected for themselves, inspired by Lucian Freud’s bequest to the Gallery of a painting by Corot that he owned. The exhibition looks back through Freud, Matisse, Degas, Leighton, Lawrence and Van Dyk as collectors, it is about the works these artists lived with and which inspired their own art. In the Autumn we have an exhibition called Beyond Caravaggio, about his astounding influence on successive generations of 17th-century artists such as Ribera, Vouet, Mattia Preti, as well as the Dutch and Flemish “Caravaggisti”.
Will you show a Caravaggio?
Yes, several. The Taking of Christ, the wonderful Caravaggio from Dublin, will be on display. It will be an amazing exhibition for an artist who had no pupils of his own, but created a revolution in painting that affected several generations of artists.
What paintings are particularly strongly represented in the Gallery’s collection?
We are very strong on Italian Renaissance, early Netherlandish and European Baroque, and especially 19th-century French. In general we have a well-balanced collection that tells a very coherent story of European art from Giotto to Cezanne.
Is it very different from the Prado?
The Prado is the collection of the Spanish royals which became a public collection, so it has tremendous depth, but is very patchy. It has fantastic Spanish, Flemish and Italian collections, but for example almost no Dutch painting.
Are you going to change your layout and displays?
We will certainly look at improving the displays.
How many visitors are from the UK and how many are foreigners?
The Gallery belongs to the nation, but in a broader sense it belongs to everyone. Many French, German and Italian visitors come and many too, from further afield. Just over half come from abroad, of all ages.
Are you favourable to loans?
Yes, I am, because the Gallery has an international role to play in scholarship and in exchanges with other institutions. Exhibition loans can help to further knowledge of the collection. We recently lent a portrait attributed rather uncertainly to the 16th-century Italian artist Rosso Fiorentino to an exhibition in Florence. It was important to be able to see it in context and to discuss it with curators and scholars. On its return, the picture has been conserved and now we are sure of its attribution to Rosso, a strange and distinctive painter. The loan has advanced our knowledge. I think today we can move paintings with absolute confidence.
Looking back after a few months in your new role at the National Gallery, what were your first steps?
As soon as I arrived my first step was to sit down with one of the unions and the staff to bring industrial action to an end and get all the galleries open. And then to enable a smooth transition of our visitor and information services to a partner company.
What is required in your job?
You need to know about art history, to know the collection, and you need to provide leadership for the institution and be a Director for everyone. I certainly hope I can do all that.
Do you still have time for your second passion, music?
I have a small grand piano in my office in Trafalgar Square so at the end of the day I will occasionally play some Chopin, Brahms or Duke Ellington. Music is a private passion now. As a young married man I made my living by playing in an Italian dance band in London. I still enjoy playing the piano and accompanying my children, who sing.
Are you pleased with the staff?
About half of the staff from when I was here in the 1990s as Curator of Later Italian and Spanish Paintings is still here thirteen years later, and this is a good sign. The staff are very committed to the Gallery and want it to be an important, forward-looking, welcoming and happy place, as much as I do.
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