Nicholas Penny to leave the National Gallery

June 23 2014

Image of Nicholas Penny to leave the National Gallery

Picture: NG

Nicholas Penny is leaving the National Gallery after six years as director. Says the NG's press release:

His decision comes as he approaches his 65th birthday this December. The exact date of his retirement will depend on the appointment of his successor. 

Under Dr Nicholas Penny’s Directorship, the National Gallery staged the most successful exhibition in its history, Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan, as well as major exhibitions on painters including Barocci, Veronese and, this autumn, Rembrandt. In 2013, for the first time ever, annual visitors to the Gallery exceeded 6 million.

Reflecting on his six years as Director, Nicholas said “I have enjoyed my years as Director and am grateful to the Trustees, staff and to the Gallery’s supporters for helping to ensure that the Gallery has continued to prosper despite a steadily declining grant – to flourish both as a great and popular resource and as a home for scholarship, a national gallery admired internationally."

He added “Following my retirement I have many plans, but chiefly look forward to spending more time with my family, friends and books.”

Mark Getty, Chairman of the National Gallery Trustees, expressed the Board’s gratitude to the Director for all he has done for the Gallery, saying “Nick has been an extraordinarily successful Director of the National Gallery, steering the nation’s acquisition of the two great Titian paintings, ‘Diana and Actaeon’ (pictured) and ‘Diana and Callisto’ jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland, and this year securing the acquisition of the Gallery’s first major American painting, ‘Men of the Docks’ by George Bellows. The Board are hugely grateful to him for his energy, vision and commitment to the Gallery’s work. We will miss him greatly.”  

The Board of Trustees will shortly begin its search for a new Director. Under the Museums and Galleries Act of 1992, the Director of the National Gallery is appointed by the Trustees with the approval of the Prime Minister.

Nicholas Penny has agreed to stay in office for the entirety of that recruitment process, in order to affect a smooth handover to his successor.

This sad and very unwelcome news comes hot on the heels of Sandy Nairne's announcement of his departure from the National Portrait Gallery. Who will succeed them? It's all getting a bit Game of Thrones.

Update - in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones writes:

It is very worrying that two such talented museum directors have apparently had enough. What have they had enough of?

Ultimately their dignified departures are personal matters and their own business. But it must be getting harder to run a big London museum. The capital is famous for art in a way it has never been before, and tourists flow ceaselessly through its galleries. There's a media assumption that every exhibition should be a hit, a political belief that galleries should provide not just well-run collections, but entertainment and education for everyone. Publicity and accessibility are everything.

Nicholas Penny and Sandy Nairne are characterful people with ideas about art. Is that kind of originality being driven out of a museum world driven by increasingly populist expectations and, at the same time, shrinking budgets? Are we about to see a new technocrat generation of museum bosses who keep their heads down, put PR first and do all they can to meet goals defined by politicians and the press?

This year has seen a taboo broken when a critic actually called for a museum director to be sacked because of (supposed) poor attendances. That kind of pressure doesn't exactly leave much room to experiment. Museums cannot just be machines for entertaining us. They should have a quieter side where the art comes first, the crowds second and a scholarly side that reveres someone like Penny.

This looks depressingly like the end of individuality in the museum world.

Update - Richard Dorment in the Telegraph thinks Nicholas might have had an offer from elsewhere:

But though he’ll be missed, he’s doing the right thing at the right time, when he can still do the shows and write the books that no one else alive could have done or written. But of that’s only if you believe he is really retiring – and if I were a betting man I’d wager that he’s had a call from a large American museum.

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