How the National Gallery stays on top

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Excerpt from the July/August 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

As the National Gallery in London prepares for its bicentenary in 2024, the great lady of Trafalgar Square will come under scrutiny as observers determine whether it remains useful. Gabriele Finaldi, its director, is leading the institution at a delicate time, pulling it out of the post-pandemic quagmire to face a myriad of issues, from funding challenges to the place of museums in modern society.

Finaldi was appointed Director of the National Gallery in 2015, after 13 years as Deputy Director of Collections and Research at the Prado in Madrid. This appointment has been widely welcomed, especially in light of his previous experience (he was curator of Italian and Spanish painting at the National Gallery from 1992 to 2002 – his catalog raisonné of the drawings of the Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, published in 2016 , seat on the shelf behind us when we meet).

Considering the tumult of the past two years is telling. Visitor numbers hit six million in 2019, filling the coffers of the National Gallery which, like all major public institutions, has had to rely increasingly on commercial revenue. National shutdowns have devastated this pattern. When Finaldi crunches the numbers, the reality is startling.

He hopes to reach “around a third” of the 2019 figure this year, adding that “anecdotally yes, we are starting to see the arrival of foreign tourists”, pointing to a core European audience from countries like Italy, Spain and France. “Before Covid, our numbers were basically 35% [UK]–65% [overseas]. We have seen that UK resident visitors have returned. And, in fact, the overall figures [at this point in the year] are around 40-50% of what they were before Covid. Asian and American visitors have yet to return in droves.

Rendering of the new lobby in the Sainsbury’s Wing of the National Gallery, designed by Selldorf Architects. Courtesy of Selldorf Architects

Guiding the National Gallery onto a secure financial path must have been daunting, but Finaldi diplomatically points out that the Cultural Recovery Fund – the government’s bailout for the sector – “has been a very significant achievement”. The grant for the gallery has increased to £29.3m from 2020 to 2021, up from £24.7m the previous year.

The gallery’s annual report for 2020-2021 says it “will continue to strive to grow [its] revenues with the objective of being 50% self-financed by 2022/23′. It seems like a difficult circle to square. “If our grant is around £23m, we want to match that with our self-generated income, which is both commercial and philanthropic. We achieved this for a very brief moment just before Covid… [It] must be gradually rebuilt,” says Finaldi.

Philanthropy is holding up, Finaldi points out, but the thorny issue of patronage is increasingly preoccupying museum officials who face stigma for associating with controversial donors and benefactors. In May, the National Gallery was the latest British institution to remove the Sackler surname from its walls (some members of the dynasty have become indelibly linked to the global opioid epidemic). The gallery and the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation have agreed that after ’30 years the naming of Room 34 as the Sackler Gallery should end’ – the family nickname is now ignominiously absent.

“I think it got harder,” Finaldi says. “There are certain areas that become off-limits to cultural institutions. The reputation of an institution is naturally very worrying: with whom do we work? What does the public expect from us? What do our own staff expect of us? This is another element that has become more important in recent years. We need to be confident that we are working with the right partners and that the partners think we are the right institution for them as well.

How the National Gallery is perceived and what it stands for beyond its hallowed porticoed terrace is a complex debate, but Finaldi never picked up on how museums should engage with broader political issues. , particularly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in 2020 (he later told the Time that “a museum cannot remain aloof from the concerns of society”). What does he think of the ‘Philip Guston Now’ exhibition debacle, which was postponed in late 2020 by four museums, including the Tate and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in response to concerns about sensitivity racial?

“I think context is extremely important. The National Gallery of Art is a great federal institution. I think there is sometimes the risk for all of us in museums to be a little scared and sometimes you have to be bold take it on the chin. It’s an uncomfortable place for anyone. And sometimes your admins don’t want you to be in that position either. I think we have to be brave in our programming and trust our artists as well.

Portrait of Susanna Lunden by Peter Paul Rubens

Portrait of Susanna Lunden (?) (“The Straw Hat”), (vs. 1622-1625), Peter Paul Rubens. National Gallery, London

A gallery of dead European artists as such should not be dismissed so easily, he says. ‘[The gallery of dead white males] is a phrase that people often come out with. I find that limited, because I think what we’re looking at is an artistic tradition, which is alive and addresses all the big questions facing all societies and all generations.

The recent exhibition of works by American artist Kehinde Wiley was full of young black people looking at works such as the six-screen cinematic installation, Prelude (2021), during my visit. An exhibition of Lucian Freud’s works in the fall (“New Perspectives”), covering a lifetime of work seems slightly offbeat, but Finaldi points out that “he is an artist who fits into the narrative of European painting from a way that is told at the national gallery. It is about figuration and the human form as an object of exploration and artistic endeavor. This raises the question of how long the exhibition model blockbuster, buffeted by many headwinds such as high costs and calamitous carbon footprints, can endure.Things are changing; loan applications are coming in for exhibitions lasting six months instead of the usual 16 weeks, while that the focus is on strategic relationships between museums that have long-term common interests,” he says. “It’s a challenge as we move forward, but I certainly think we need to keep doing a program exhibition intelligent and perfectly appropriate and ambitious.”

What people are willing to pay will become more important as museums come under pressure from central government to monetize their assets and operations. Eyebrows were raised in 2020 when the National Gallery announced an £8 charge for an online viewing of its Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition with curator Letizia Treves, prompting accusations of elitism. Ticket prices for hit shows are also skyrocketing at all institutions; full price admission to ‘Raphael’ costs £26 at weekends. Finaldi recites some house truths in response. “First of all, the National Gallery is free. The National Gallery is a blockbuster exhibition open every day of the year with the most amazing works of art. I think that’s a very important thing to keep in mind. Second, most of our exhibitions are free. The exhibitions that we charge are those that are very expensive to organize. Throughout our interview, he continually defends free.

The current blockbuster, ‘Raphael’, is on display in the Wilkins Building, the gallery’s historic hub. It will house temporary exhibitions while the Sainsbury Wing is refurbished as part of the bicentenary initiative known as NG200. The Sainsbury’s Wing foyer was often dark and cramped so this upgrade is long overdue. “The Sainsbury’s Wing has become our main entrance; this is where the collection begins. Remember that we are essentially a chronologically arranged collection, taking you through European painting from the 13th to the early 20th century. What we are very aware of is that ‘welcoming’ is not of the same caliber as collecting,” says Finaldi.

Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1782), Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. National Gallery, London

The art diary reported that works from the permanent collection had to be cleared out to accommodate the temporary exhibition space, disrupting national groupings in the hangar. But there is an advantage. “You notice different things, noticing similarities that you haven’t seen before,” Finaldi says. ‘I always wondered why, for example, we had the wonderful Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun self-portrait [in a Straw Hat]. Vigée-Lebrun tells in his diary of seeing Rubens in Brussels The straw hat [Portrait of Susanna Lunden]… Both paintings are in the National Gallery. They have never been seen side by side.

A much-needed research center and members’ room in the Wilkins building are also part of the site’s ingenious redesign, designed by Selldorf Architects (this phase is expected to be completed around spring 2025). The lineup of events for NG200, including a national public art commission from Jeremy Deller, looks promising. “I hope Jeremy comes up with something joyful and engaging,” says Finaldi. The total cost of the NG200 program is £95m (£85m for capital projects); the gallery has confirmed pledges of £50 million from a number of prominent supporters, trusts associated with the National Gallery and its own reserves. “We do not intend to ask the government for additional funding for NG200,” a spokesperson said.

The first life-size exhibition of 14th-century Sienese art outside Italy is also part of the NG200 programming, as well as ‘National Treasures’ – a series of 12 exhibits launching in 12 regions across the UK, drawing on key works from the gallery’s collection. Thirty million people should be only an hour away from these National Gallery masterpieces. Finaldi says: “We want to share these images with the whole population. We really say: “This is your National Gallery”, he adds. All eyes will be on him, and the bicentenary legacy he is shaping, in the years to come.

Excerpt from the July/August 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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