What’s on the agenda for the new director of the National Gallery?

A daunting task awaits. Cedric Weber/from www.shutterstock.com

For the past few months, the much-anticipated appointment of Gabriele Finaldi as the next director of the National Gallery has been one of the worst kept secrets in the art world. When the announcement was finally made on March 18, the question was less “Gabriele who?” and more “what took you so long?”

Finaldi’s appointment has been universally welcomed, not least because he is returning to the institution where he was Curator of Italian and Spanish Paintings from 1992 to 2002. By all accounts, he made many more friends than foes during his previous time at the gallery.

Since then, Finaldi has amply demonstrated his directorial ability Madrid’s Prado Museum, where he has been Deputy Director for Collections and Research since 2002. This is a role that involves much more than writing erudite essays on Baroque painting (his field of art history) and shuffling the picture hang. Finaldi oversaw the redisplay of the entire collection, the opening of a major extension and the creation of the Prado Research Centre. So what does such an impressive track record augur for his tenure in Trafalgar Square?

A host of problems

The contents of the intray on Finaldi’s desk will, of course, be daunting. Ever since the post of National Gallery Director was created in 1855 (some 30 years after the gallery was founded), it has been demonstrably impossible to please everyone, all of the time. Controversies ranging from picture cleaning (too aggressive) to acquisitions (the wrong ones), exhibitions (too many visitors … or too few), architecture (a “carbuncle”) and the provision of the public lavatories (never enough) have dogged successive directors with predictable regularity. Finaldi can add contemporary arguments about selfie sticks, oil sponsorship and corporate hires to the list.

Finaldi says farewell to the Prado. Fernando Alvarado/EPA

Top of the current directorial agenda is the dispute with the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union over the privatisation of visitor services at. Last year, the trustees announced the appointment of a private security contractor to take over the gallery, starting with the Sainsbury Wing. After years of rocky industrial relations, the PCS viewed the move as a gauntlet thrown down. It also provided the union with a PR gift. Why privatise those endlessly patient, dignified and knowledgeable guardians of the nation’s art? Since then, a series of strikes has resulted in the temporary closure of many rooms and a growing perception of an organisation ill at ease with itself.

If the dispute is resolved by August, when Finaldi takes over, the impending appointment of a new chair of the trustees will have helped. The privatisation policy is strongly supported by the current chair, Mark Getty, but his successor, Hannah Rothschild, may want to change the mood music. The first female chair of trustees, Rothschild’s style is notably more inclusive and relaxed. Her use of social media (@jazzybaroness) to welcome the “fantastic news” of Finaldi’s appointment also bodes well for the substantive relationship between the incoming duo.

Putting on a good spread

But Finaldi’s reputation as director will not primarily depend on the resolution of strikes or the easing of internal tensions among a staff with a reputation for fractious competitiveness. His critics will evaluate his success in artistic terms; judging if he can close the deal on acquisitions that both extend the art historical canon and hold their own alongside the greatest purchases of his predecessors. That’s no easy task in the present market for Old Master paintings, but Finaldi has encouraging form in both London and Madrid.

Today, even more than acquisitions, exhibitions are the most immediate and sensitive barometer of directorial success. Under the current director, Nick Penny, shows have veered between popular scrummages (Leonardo and Rembrandt) and crowd-dispelling scholarship (a forthcoming series of displays of empty frames). Arguably, that’s not a bad balance, but Finaldi should insist on much more sophisticated design and staging to accommodate everyone who wants to see the most popular exhibitions.

Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, famously described the role of the gallery director as “part gunslinger, legal fixer, accomplice smuggler, anarchist and toady”. It’s unlikely that Finaldi views his new job in those terms. Even so, he’ll need to be politically astute, media-friendly, financially savvy, tirelessly charming … and a respected connoisseur. Good luck Gabriele.

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