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.

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