'The Rising Cost of Art Could Create a National Divide'
Sharp, Rob, The Independent (London, England)
The Monday Interview Nicholas Penny, the National Gallery's director, tells Rob Sharp why it's too expensive to take the museum's best-known works to the regions
Nicholas Penny stands peering at Jan Gossaert's The Adoration of the Kings, his nose barely three inches from the canvas. The Flemish master's brightly coloured altar-piece transplants the Nativity to Europe, and is one of the key works at an exhibition opening at the National Gallery later this month. Penny points at the depiction of an infant Christ handling gold coins. "Maybe he was a philanthropist," he says, with a smirk.
Walking around the National Gallery's hallowed spaces, it soon becomes clear that Penny, the institution's director since 2008, does not suffer fools gladly. An accomplished curator, author and academic, he was educated at Cambridge, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and was senior sculpture curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington before taking his current role.
Penny's pronouncements are similarly heavyweight. Since he took the job he has criticised galleries' apparent obsession with "blockbuster" exhibitions featuring high-profile works ("It's not a beauty competition"); the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square ("We have a real problem with vandals and louts"); and measuring success in visitor numbers ("There is nothing more exhausting than box ticking").
Now, he believes there is another impediment to the public's enjoyment of works like the Gossaert, which is too fragile to be loaned to other galleries. "The serious problem people don't discuss is transport costs," he says. "It costs less to go to Berlin than it does to go to Birmingham. People tend to say why don't institutions send works of art to the regions? But it is more difficult for people living in Grimsby to make an outing to see national collections in London than at any time in the last 100 years. I think we are becoming two nations if we don't do something."
He added: "We talk about creating incentives for corporations to give money to museums. What would be good if they made special provisions for school parties to be taken to great national collections in London."
Penny, 61, who is waspish, well-attired and cutting, is fiercely protective of the gallery's 2,300 works, of which he emphasises a relatively high number are permanently on display. He says he is "more cautious than other institutions about loaning out work", adding that he shouldn't "take risks". His job, even in straitened times, is to protect the specific Titian or Van Gogh that the public may have travelled to see. He rattles off an anecdote about visiting the V&A to view a specific piece and the member of staff he questioned not being able to "even spell it".
It was such old-fashioned zeal which made Penny's appointment to the gallery's directorship welcome among his contemporaries. Born in 1949, he was educated at Shrewsbury School before beginning his meteoric ascent. By 32, he was appointed to the Slade Professorship at Oxford University, one of British art's most prestigious academic positions.
In 1991 he identified the Duke of Northumberland's Madonna of the Pinks as a genuine Raphael, not a copy as was previously supposed. He has written numerous academic and more populist books, his latest, Director's Choice, published last month, being an accessible series of essays about 37 of his favourite National Gallery paintings.
His latest position has been similarly successful. He has overseen a year-on-year increase in visitor numbers, which stood at 4.78 million in 2009 according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. Nationally, this is second only to the British Museum. Last year he was successful in leading a high-profile campaign to raise 50m to purchase Titian's monumental masterpiece Diana and Actaeon for Britain.
But he has also apparently …
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Publication information: Article title: 'The Rising Cost of Art Could Create a National Divide'. Contributors: Sharp, Rob - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: February 14, 2011. Page number: 22. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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