Why Penny will be missed

December 4 2014

Image of Why Penny will be missed

Picture: Timothy Foster/Apollo

There's a good interview by Thomas Marks in The Apollo with National Gallery director Nicholas Penny, who has been named the magazine's 'Personality of the Year'. The article neatly distills his directorial philosophy, which I hope will in some way live on after his departure.

Do read the whole thing, but here are two key points. First, on the importance of thinking in a scholarly, even connoisseurial way, for the long term:

For Penny, the mandate of a public museum has meant working to a far longer time frame than a more impresario-minded director might allow for: ‘Museums and art galleries’, he says, ‘weren’t really established for “the public”, in the sense of today’s living people, they were always intended to be regarded from a far higher altitude in terms of time – they were for posterity.’ He continues: ‘People talk all the time about how it’s really important to get more young people in, which is perfectly good, but I really think it’s more important that people in my position should be thinking about what’s going to happen in 30 years’ time. If you do that, you’re keener to look after – and I don’t just mean protect, but actually research and think about – all the most unpopular art that happens to be in the National Gallery today.’

That means heeding less fashionable Old Masters, as well as the ‘tickety-boo’ paintings that bring so many tourists to the gallery each year. Penny points out the correlation between a moribund market for Old Masters and an alarming diminution in experts in the field: ‘When you look at old auction catalogues from 20 or 30 years ago, it’s quite dramatic. There were 10 times more museum-quality works. If museums aren’t buying in these areas, they won’t value having curators in them, and the auction houses will have fewer experts. You can actually see that some areas of connoisseurship are shrinking.’ It is a disquieting situation, but one that might be said to have spurred Penny on at the National Gallery: ‘A place like this has to make itself a centre for expert knowledge about the pictures we have. We can’t rely on university art history departments producing people who’ll help us decide whether a Gaudenzio Ferrari really is by Gaudenzio Ferrari. We have to be a centre for study and scholarship – I think I’ve done quite a lot for that at the National Gallery.


’Penny has not pushed building projects at the National Gallery; his interventions in this respect have been more delicate than grand. ‘The most important thing about the permanent collection in my time as director,’ he says, ‘is that by the time I leave, every single Victorian or Edwardian ceiling – with the original day-lit arrangements and plasterwork – will have been exposed and restored.’ Here, as elsewhere, Penny has looked to the past for examples. But this year has also seen a cluster of developments that will modernise visitor experience, including the introduction of Wi-Fi in the galleries; reversing the ban on photography; and the launch of the museum’s first membership scheme. ‘The gallery’s got to respond to what you might call the common expectation of a visitor. It will always change in that way.’ Even here, however, in thinking about what these policies might entail, the importance of precedent is palpable: ‘New forms of antisocial activity arise at different times. In the Ashmolean Museum in the 1920s, all the undergraduates started whistling and the curatorial staff were driven absolutely crazy. They thought there was nothing more important in the world than stopping whistling.’

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