Interview with Nicholas Penny on his plans for the National Gallery: “It is a real shame that we do not have more American paintings”

In his first interview since taking over, the new director outlines his priorities



In February, Nicholas Penny took up his new position as director of the National Gallery (NG). He is now expressing “grave concern” at the growing emphasis on temporary exhibitions, to the detriment of the permanent collections of museums.

In his first interview, he also discusses the NG’s latest acquisition crisis—and his priorities for the collection. Considering that Dr Penny is a Renaissance scholar, it is surprising that he will seek to strengthen the National Gallery’s 19th-century collection.

What is more, he hopes to extend the NG’s role beyond its remit of Western Europe to include the United States. The gallery’s major American painting is the 1902 portrait of Lord Ribblesdale by John Singer Sargent, who worked mostly in Europe, and its only other work from the US is a George Inness landscape which was transferred from the Tate in 1956.

Dr Penny is hoping that US donors may see the importance of their art being represented at the NG. The gallery already has an active American Friends group, which also administers the £50m endowment given by the late Sir Paul Getty.

Dr Penny, who is British, served as curator of Renaissance art at London’s National Gallery for ten years. He left in 2000 to join the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where he was first a professor at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts and then, two years later, senior curator of sculpture and decorative arts. He has taken over as director of the London gallery from Charles Saumarez Smith, who left last July to become chief executive of the Royal Academy.

The next key appointment at the institution will be its chairman, to replace lawyer Peter Scott, whose term ends in August (when Dr Saumarez Smith left, there were rumours that relations between them had deteriorated). The trustees are expected to put forward a recommendation next month which will go to the prime minister, who makes the appointment.

The Art Newspaper: You have worked at the national galleries in Washington and London. What are the differences between the two institutions?

Nicholas Penny: Both galleries have very close relations with their governments. However, the National Gallery of Art in Washington is not subject to quite the same sort of surveillance as the National Gallery in London. I’m not complaining, but there is always the feeling in London that someone might raise a difficult question in Parliament about what you are doing.

The US gallery’s resources are tremendous compared with those at the NG in London, where support, such as colour photocopiers and other resources, is less available.

TAN: Is the NG facing an acquisitions crisis?

NP: The history of the NG has been one long acquisitions crisis. However, there was very recently great anxiety about the sale of the Poussin Sacraments. We are very grateful to the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, who recently decided that the Poussins will now remain here on long-term loan.

TAN: And what about other major works the NG recently wanted to acquire such as the Rubens sketch for the ceiling of the Banqueting House [on loan to the NG for 26 years] which Viscount Hampden now wants to sell?

NP: Initially I thought that the Rubens was really a NG picture, but I now think that it could be incorporated very well into Tate Britain. I do hope they are able to acquire it (p9) and I am optimistic on their behalf.

TAN: In terms of acquisitions, how should the NG allocate its resources?

NP: As director, part of your responsibility is to think about the pictures on loan and whether they might be offered for sale. But you also have to consider what you would like to acquire in a more usual sense—that is, going out and buying them. It’s difficult to keep both in balance.

I feel that the 19th century is the area where we should fill more gaps. In particular, it is a real shame that we do not have more American paintings. We have only one Sargent. I wish we had an early Eakins, and Bellows is a great artist whose work can stand comparison with Goya and Monet.

TAN: In terms of exhibitions, you have already spoken out against blockbusters.

NP: What I object to is the word, which masks the distinction between entertainment and education. We are in the education business, and are concerned with quality. The NG has put on some very successful shows recently, but it will now be very difficult to find new subjects as appealing as Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio and Velázquez.

We are now enjoined by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to take more risks. Risk-taking is now a positive term—and so it should be. I am a great admirer of exhibitions which take risks, and present something completely new, such as “Neoclassical Sculpture”, now at Tate Britain (until 8 June).

TAN: Are too many resources being put into exhibitions, to the detriment of the permanent collection?

NP: For me the balance between the collection and exhibitions is a matter of grave concern. Temporary shows are taking up more and more time and space.

Nowadays people ask in conversation, “What’s on at this or that great gallery, such as the Prado in Madrid or the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna?” Even five years ago, that would have seemed a rather odd question, since the answer in the case of the Prado would have been the masterpieces of the permanent collection, such as Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Now people mean temporary exhibitions.

At most museums, curators can be divided into those who are slowly working on catalogues of the permanent collection and those who are rushing to finish catalogues of temporary exhibitions. In a competition between the two, the tendency is for shows to win out, because this is what gives the gallery publicity—it is the proof that the institution is alive. This produces a very different culture, and defending certain types of work done in museums is now much more difficult.

TAN: Moving on to the NG building, what are your development plans?

NP: I would like to develop the lower floor cruciform galleries [a set of five rooms now used mainly to show pictures temporarily displaced from the main floor because of building work]. These are now very drab and unappealing. It should be a high priority to transform them into really attractive spaces. I would like to use them to show temporary displays from works in the collection, perhaps put on partly by curatorial assistants or in collaborations with UK art history academic institutions.

TAN: And what about St Vincent House, just north of the Sainsbury Wing, which was purchased in 1998?

NP: I hope to develop plans, but we need to reflect on them before we put on our hard hats. The site could provide a temporary exhibition gallery, but it is important that it is linked physically to our main buildings—certainly below ground and ideally above. Our present temporary exhibition galleries in the Sainsbury Wing basement are very inflexible and relatively small —and there is no natural daylight. This works well for some shows, such as the recent Siena exhibition, but we do need other spaces.

TAN: Your catalogue of the NG’s 16th-century Venetian paintings is published this month (p46). Will you be working on subsequent volumes on the other Italian pictures?

NP: I have already done considerable work on some of the paintings, but now I won’t have the time to complete further volumes. I would like to find a younger scholar as a co-author and pass on the torch.