Changing of the guard at great arts venues may be end of a golden era

As Nicholas Serota, Kasper Holten and Martin Roth move on, the race is on to protect their legacy as funding cuts bite

For at least a decade, the arts have reliably made headlines in this country. From David Bowie at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Matisse’s cutouts at Tate Modern,Leonardo at the National Gallery, to the queues outside the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum, or the scarce tickets for One Man, Two Guvnors at the National Theatre, Britain has enjoyed a long and happy phase in which, energised by lottery funds, the popularity of even highbrow art forms has seen them leap from the feature pages into the news. And behind this success a team of unfashionably white, middle-aged men have been working away.

Now, as we get ready to “ring out the old” at the end of the year, it is certainly true to say “the old order changeth” in our cultural realm. Perhaps sensing the winds of change, a succession of the distinguished artistic directors responsible for this golden era have either left, or are about to leave, their posts.

Martin Roth, the German director of the V&A, has packed up after a series of extraordinarily popular exhibitions, including shows on Alexander McQueen and Bowie, staged over five years; Sir Nicholas Serota, the man who helped transform public interest in contemporary art, is soon to step down after nearly 30 years at the Tate; and Kasper Holten, the Dane who shook up audiences with adventurous productions during his five years as director of opera at Covent Garden’s opera house, is off at the end of March.

These departures come soon after Sir Nicholas Penny (the second of three Sir Nicks in this departing “old guard”) left the National Gallery in 2015, and Sir Nicholas Hytner bowed out at the National Theatre after a long period of unprecedented popularity, with hit productions such as War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In the past 12 months the revered Neil MacGregor has also been replaced at the head of the British Museum, following an illustrious 13-year reign.

So a period of relative stability and collaboration ends. The arts world is stepping into the unknown, as together these men operated as a formidable political lobby. Some might welcome a general shakeup next year, but for those who appreciate the huge shift in attitudes to Britain’s creative industries, reflected in a largely successful campaign to protect them from government cuts, the outlook is less rosy.

Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty exhibit at the V&A in London.
Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty exhibit at the V&A in London. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

“We have had an amazing generation of artistic leaders in the UK, including the likes of the Nicks Serota and Hytner, and with people like Peter Bazalgette from the world of business playing an important role at the Arts Council of England, too,” said Harriet Finney, deputy chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation, a national membership organisation. Speaking this weekend, she raised doubts about the potentially diminishing appeal of London’s national arts institutions for talent from abroad.

“Britain has long been a magnet for people who are the best in their field from all over the world, and the departure of some of them this year amid rumbles of discontent over Britain becoming less international in outlook would be worrying, were it to become a trend,” she said. “We will have to show that fears of the country turning inward are misplaced.”

This Christmas, after the loss of this fairly stable group, the country’s cultural status looks vulnerable. Each of their former national institutions is in receipt of a large, endangered public grant, and as directors they liaised regularly rather than seeing each other as rivals. It was a task that became increasingly vital as Tory arts ministers and chancellors questioned the need to support them.

At the time, Sir Tony Hall, now director-general of the BBC, was still running the Royal Opera House, and a series of meetings was set up to co-ordinate plans to combat funding cuts and then to shape the 2012 Cultural Olympiad that would accompany the London games. This joint work indirectly helped deliver unexpected triumphs, such as the British Museum’s 100 Objects or the National Theatre’s acclaimed musical London Road: events that could not have been imagined without state subsidy. And that sense of community continued, even as some of the personnel changed. So the question is, can the next leaders of these celebrated cultural establishments present such a united front, while also producing work that delights and stretches their audiences?

Sir Nicholas Serota
Sir Nicholas Serota is leaving the Tate after nearly 30 years. Photograph: David M. Benett/Getty Images

Predictably, this has been a frenzied time for job applications. With so many key vacancies on offer, the keenest of candidates have had to choose which prize to set their sights on. Female applicants from all over the world are being encouraged to storm these British citadels. Male dominance is, after all, not just a British problem. In 2015 the world’s 12 most popular art museums were all led by men.

“One of the big challenges is finding the next generation to reflect the country at large – women, BAME, people of all socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Finney. “Social mobility is a massive issue. If we want to make sure that culture in this country is accessible to everyone and is produced by the widest range of talents possible, we need to have an education system that gives all young people routes in.”

At a farewell lunch at Tate Modern last Tuesday, Serota joked that he might decide to stay on. In fact, his new appointment, taking over from Bazalgette as the chairman of Arts Council England, starts in the new year. When Serota first took control of London’s Tate Gallery in 1988, it had just one venue, on Millbank. Tate Liverpool opened later that year. His application for the role had consisted of a seven-year plan that hinted heavily at his expansionist hopes. Last year 4.7 million visitors came to shows at Tate Modern, the millennial art venue he set up inside the old Bankside power station on the edge of the Thames. It is now the most popular modern art gallery in the world and is run, under Serota, by its first female director, Frances Morris.

“One of the great advantages of Bankside was that it seemed that there would be room to develop in future,” Serota told the Art Newspaper. Sure enough, this summer it opened a £260m extension inside the old Switch House, managing it just before all the freshly desirable land around Tate was bought up.

The newly opened Switch House at the Tate Modern in London.
The newly opened Switch House at the Tate Modern in London. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Rumours about who will succeed Serota as overall Tate commandant have focused on Maria Balshaw, director of Manchester’s cluster of Whitworth Galleries, although a fortnight ago at the Turner prize supper she said she was tired of all the speculation. Other contenders include Sheena Wagstaff, in charge of modern and contemporary art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Nicholas Cullinan, head of the National Portrait Gallery.

Over in Kensington, under Roth the V&A drew in a hugely creditable 3.4 million visitors last year. Its most visited show ever was the 21-week run of the McQueen extravaganza. While 300,000 people went to its Bowie exhibition in 2013, 493,000 people came to its tribute to the late fashion designer. For the show’s final two weekends the museum opened throughout the night for the first time, to meet demand.

The German director had come to Kensington from jobs at two leading Dresden museums and he replaced Sir Mark Jones, who had led the V&A since 2001. Roth has since aired his fears over Brexit and about the future of the V&A in an isolated Britain. In July he said planning for the future felt “like skiing in very thick fog”.

Luke Syson, the winsome Brit currently running the department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at New York’s Met, has been talked of as Roth’s successor, but picking a woman for the job would also be smart. As Sonnet Stanfill, a female curator at the V&A, recently pointed out, there is disproportionately bad representation of women at the top of the museum, given that about 75% of its curators are women.

Martin Roth
Martin Roth is leaving the V&A in London citing concerns over Brexit. Photograph: Nick Harvey/REX/Shutterstock

Over at the Royal Opera House, the chance to choose a woman has sailed by. In September the board decided to scare the traditionalists by appointing 37-year-old Oliver Mears to succeed Holten in the opera world’s most prestigious British job. Mears comes to Covent Garden from the much smaller Northern Ireland Opera and starts work in March. He is opposed to “barriers” between audiences and singers, and so dislikes period costume and even the sacred original-language performance. “As soon as you put people in period costume it becomes about escapism and something else,” he has said, adding: “As soon as you sing in English, one of those barriers is down. I think particularly in comedy, it’s really important that people can understand the humour as its happening rather than looking up at surtitles.”

Mears is rumoured to have been recently turned down for a similar role at the English National Opera, which lost artistic director John Berry in the summer of last year after two decades of service. Berry’s position at the Coliseum was filled this summer by Daniel Kramer, a 39-year-old American.

Despite losing MacGregor, the British Museum had another hit show this year with Sunken Cities. It remains Britain’s top attraction, with 6.8 million visitors last year. Similarly, the National Theatre is still thriving following the departure of Hytner in March 2015. Now run by Rufus Norris, the Hytner legacy continues to play a big financial role. Both The Curious Incident… and War Horse are still in production, either in the West End or on tour.

Arts commentator Jan Dalley noted earlier this year that the conventional image of the director of an august arts institution as a staid “keeper” of treasures and antiquities has long gone. Where once they were appointed for their scholarship, now they are required to be strategists, fundraisers and entertainers too.

Serota, the member of this retiring old guard with the greatest experience, will not, of course, be disappearing. As the chairman of Arts Council England, he will need his famous persuasive powers and poker-faced stance. Caricatured in the Spectator as a Bond villain stroking a PVC Jeff Koons pussycat, to some in the arts world he embodies the hollow showmanship of the modern age. To others, his mastery of strategy and attention to detail are their best hope as a newly austere funding chill blows in this January.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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