It is 21 years since Norman Rosenthal arrived at the Royal Academy (RA) as exhibitions secretary. Coming from the controversial and trendy Institute of Contemporary Arts, he brought new life into the Academy, then a very staid institution. Despite the passage of time, his tastes are still at the cutting edge. Over Sensation!, last winter, his tough and outspoken stand was largely responsible for the resignation of four Academicians. During his long reign, Rosenthal has put the RA on the map as London’s finest exhibition venue and one of the best anywhere. It attracts nearly a million visitors a year.
Rosenthal himself is now one of the world’s leading exhibition “gurus”, with a vast wealth of experience and contacts. He is renowned for his determination to have his own way, and some people feel he is a bit of a bully. But he has a track record of getting results. In an interview with The Art Newspaper, Rosenthal talked candidly. A deep commitment came through to what he describes as his “strange metier”.
The Art Newspaper: What are your own personal tastes in art? And to what extent are they reflected in the RA exhibition programme?
Norman Rosenthal: I like all art: old and new. I never studied art history as an undergraduate, and I’m quite proud of that. I’m an amateur in the old-fashioned sense.
Art is not to do with absolute values; it is a quixotic thing. When you put works of art in a particular order, and bring them from other places, they change and acquire new meanings. That is one of the reasons why exhibitions are important.
Here at the RA I want to present old art in a way which will make it new and relevant—and, when appropriate, to make new art part of our tradition.
How do you get the loans? The RA does not have a large collection to lend out, so you can’t offer works in exchange.
First, I stress to owners that the RA is an extraordinary platform. It has beautiful galleries, in the middle of one of the great cities of the world. The Academy has a history which stretches back to 1768, and a glorious record of exhibitions. Second, we do exhibitions which make a useful contribution: a new evaluation, or a reaffirmation—and at the right moment.
Have you become a sort of diplomat in negotiating loans?
Yes, funnily enough—although some people regard me as a bull in a china shop. I’m a good diplomat in my own way, because I always speak my mind, although you have to be sensitive depending on whom you are with. There is no point in asking the Louvre to lend the Mona Lisa, to take a ridiculous example. You request things which are ambitious, but somehow reasonable. I stop my colleagues at the RA if I feel it would be incorrect to ask for a loan—whether it is for conservation reasons or the importance of the work to the collection in which it is in.
Russian lenders often require payment for loans, understandable because their museums are in financial crisis. In what circumstances does the RA pay to borrow?
We very rarely pay for loans, but Russia is a special case.
Two Schiele paintings lent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York were recently impounded after it was claimed that they had been looted by the Nazis. Will this make international borrowing more difficult?
As exhibition organisers one has to overcome difficulties. The legal situation may be a reason for someone not lending a particular work. One sees if one can get round it, and if one can’t, then one has to be realistic.
How has the exhibition scene changed in the years you have been with the RA?
For me personally, the best thing is that I am now dealing with my contemporaries. When I joined the RA, I was having to deal with some terribly grand people. In your early thirties, it was frightening.
Perhaps you have now joined the ranks of the grand people?
I hope not. I don’t feel I’ve got older. It is much easier to be with Neil MacGregor than his predecessor, Michael Levey, simply because we are the same sort of age. Neil and Nick Serota are my contemporaries. There is no bullshit and one can be realistic.
Critics sometimes complain that London misses out on some of the great exhibitions. What do you say?
That is unfair. London is extraordinarily rich in exhibitions. A show can very rarely go to more than two or three venues, so there is no way we can always get them.
What about Vermeer? You fought hard to bring it to London two years ago, but how close did you get in winning the support of the venues in Washington and The Hague?
We got quite close, at one level. At another level, we were a million miles away. I wanted Vermeer badly, and it should have happened. But you have to build up a consensus. I tried hard. It was a bit like trying to get the Barnes Collection. I was the very first person to be on the doorstep of the Barnes. But the RA couldn’t afford the £1 to £2 million fee, and we were unable to find enough people in Britain prepared to put up the money.
To what extent is the RA’s exhibition programme inhibited by financial constraints?
Exhibitions are about the art of the possible. It is a perpetual juggling act. The search for sponsorship is very enervating and hard.
What was the impact of the RA’s recent financial problems?
None. Our exhibition programme has gone ahead as planned. The fact that The Age of Modernism didn’t come to London was little to do with our financial problems. There were other issues, and the financial situation was only one factor, and not decisive.
The Age of Modernism: Art in the Twentieth Century had been scheduled for four London venues in late 1997 [RA, Hayward, Whitechapel and National Portrait Gallery] and then the Guggenheim in New York. In the end it was only shown in Berlin. What were the real reasons why London and New York were dropped?
The reasons were complex. After Henry Meyrick-Hughes left the Hayward Gallery, working with them became more difficult. Then there were problems with key Russian loans. The Russian museums were not prepared to give any commitments until after Mr Yeltsin had been re-elected as President.
In the end I had a fantastic time, because instead at the RA we got Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. We did something else, perhaps as good, and in London terms more significant.
How important was Sensation?
It arrived at a climactic moment in the history of British art. It was the right time for the show. There have been many important British artists this century, but what is significant about Damien Hirst and his friends is that there has never been such a big culture of art-making as there is now. The School of London, of Ron Kitaj and his colleagues, consisted of around ten artists, now there are hundreds.
I went to the Whitechapel Open last weekend, and I was amazed by the standard. The artists of London are on the ball, in the way that those of New York were in the 1960s-80s, and to some extent still are, but those of Paris and Germany are not.
How did you feel about the resignation of four Academicians in the events surrounding Sensation?
You have to take these things as they come. Each person who resigned, including one of my best friends, Gillian Ayres, did so for different reasons, and with different nuances.
Will Sensation travel?
I am off to Berlin tomorrow, and we are hoping that Sensation will be shown there in late September, at the Hamburger Bahnhof. I would also like it to go to America, and we are talking with the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn would be exactly the right, slightly off beat venue, but it depends on finding the money.
Next January you will be showing Monet in the 20th Century. Is there a danger that such shows are becoming too successful: too crowded and too hyped?
Of course there is a danger, but we are doing an exhibition which will be meaningful. MaryAnne Stevens and I, along with our colleagues working with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, have got incredible loans. We will show Monet as an artist who made an extraordinary contribution to the art of this century.
How does the RA fit into the London scene?
I don’t think anyone would invent the RA now, but it exists. One of its great traditions is the synoptic exhibition, and these were started in the 1930s. I have tried to continue this: Japan, The Art of Photography, the Genius and then Glory of Venice, Africa, and the Twentieth Century series (German, British, Italian and American art). Of course, we also do shows on narrower themes, such as Early Cézanne.
The special thing about the RA is that it is an isolated place. I want the galleries to resemble a walled garden. An exhibition is a closed world, like a theatre. The problem of somewhere like the National Gallery is that when you are in the Sainsbury Wing basement galleries you always feel that upstairs is the permanent collection, and you should be there.
There are very few exhibition organisers anywhere in the world with your track record. How have you succeeded?
There are others: Françoise Cachin, Pontus Hulten, Joanna Drew, David Sylvester... It’s a strange metier I’m in. I’ve had tremendous support, and you can’t do anything by yourself in this particular game. I try to identify the best collaborators, and that often takes time. In the case of the Africa exhibition, in one afternoon we threw away five years of work because we were not satisfied with the proposed show. We then did it ourselves, with the help of Tom Phillips, a lover of African art. In the end it was incredible.
Your wife Manuela Marques is at the Prado. How much time do you spend in Madrid?
I met Manuela while working on an exhibition on Murillo in 1983. We married nine years ago and have two daughters. I try to go to Madrid for a long weekend every fortnight and she regularly comes to London.
You’ve now been at the RA for twenty-one years. What are your long-term plans?
I have no plans. Each day brings new surprises. I am devoted to London and it would be very difficult to move. I have ideas that will keep the galleries busy for another six to eight years.
But you also love opera, and three years ago you were appointed to the Opera Advisory Board of Covent Garden.
In another world I might have been an impresario. I also love the theatre. But I know the world of art, and knowledge is something you have to accumulate.