Maria Balshaw, the hugely respected leader of Manchester’s galleries and a driving force in the city’s cultural renaissance, is expected to replace Sir Nicholas Serota as director of Tate.
The hunt for Serota’s successor, to one of the most powerful jobs in the arts, has been ongoing since it was announced in September he was standing down after almost 30 years.
Balshaw has been talked about as a favourite ever since. It is understood she has now been chosen by Tate trustees. Her name has been put forward to the government and it still needs to be formally agreed by the prime minister. A decision is not expected until at least next week.
Balshaw has been director of the Whitworth Art Gallery since 2006. She became joint director of the Whitworth and the Manchester Art Gallery in 2011. In 2014, she in effect became Manchester’s cultural attache when she took on the role of strategic lead for culture at the city council.
At the Whitworth, Balshaw has led the much-admired £15m redevelopment of the gallery, helping to breathe new life into the collections and dramatically increasing visitor numbers. It won the 2015 museum of the year prize. “The Whitworth feels vital and alive,” wrote the Guardian art critic Adrian Searle.
It is highly probable that Tate trustees would have been impressed by Balshaw’s record on big, strategic projects. As well as the art galleries, she has been a central figure in the creation of The Factory, the £110m arts venue planned on the former site of Granada’s TV studios. A planning decision on the project is to be announced by city councillors on Thursday.
She is also admired by and enjoys warm relationships with artists. She successfully persuaded Cornelia Parker that the Whitworth should be the venue for an important exhibition in 2015. “She made it impossible to turn down,” said Parker in an interview with Apollo magazine to mark Balshaw being named its personality of the year in 2015.
Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, said: “Manchester’s loss is the Tate’s gain.” Powell said she knew Balshaw had applied for the role. “I feared she would get it. It’s brilliant for Manchester to have a Mancunian sprinkling in the cultural scene in London but we will miss her,” she said.
The Tate appointment would be recognition not only of Balshaw’s success with getting renowned artists to show their work at the Whitworth but in attracting new audiences to the museum, Powell added.
The museum is in the impoverished Moss Side district at the end of Manchester’s Curry Mile. When the Whitworth reopened after a £15m revamp in 2015, she insisted that guests at the gala dinner were served curry from one of the road’s restaurants.
“She understands much more than most how cultural institutions need to change in order to stay relevant and not become elitist institutions separate from their communities,” said Powell. She added that one of the reasons the Whitworth won museum of the year was the effort Balshaw had made to welcome local residents, particularly the young.
The writer Jeanette Winterson, who is professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester (of which the Whitworth is part), said Balshaw’s vision and communication made her the perfect person to take over Tate.
“She is high art but she’s democratic. There’s no dumbing down, there’s no apologies but she is also saying this is for everybody. That’s why I love her … it’s that all-inclusive, forward thinking but no compromises,” she said.
Balshaw had been pivotal in rejuvenating culture in the city, the writer said, adding: “When she comes to the Tate she will bring in a different approach. She’ll bring in more women of course, which is what’s needed, it will be new. Nick Serota has done a great job but in terms of appointing somebody else there could not be a better person.”
Balshaw was a warm and charismatic person, said Winterson. “[But] there is no bullshit there, she will say it like it is, you will get the truth. She is kind, she’s compassionate and she respects people but she doesn’t play the game, she doesn’t arse lick, she doesn’t dick suck, she doesn’t brown nose.”
Balshaw will take charge of an organisation that consists of Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives.
In a Guardian interview in 2015, she admitted being flattered by the talk about her possibly succeeding Serota. She said: “Who wouldn’t, in the art sector, want that kind of job?”
Serota is to become chairman of Arts Council England next month. His formal leaving date from Tate has yet to be agreed and there is likely to be a transitional period.