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Victoria & Albert Museum

The consensus is that one of the world’s greatest museums, the V&A, has lost its way. A strong leader is needed.

Decorative arts flagship seeks captain who believes in its contents and curators

London

This month the trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) will be drawing up a shortlist of candidates to replace its director, Dr Alan Borg, who has lost the confidence of his trustees. Earlier this year it was decided not to renew his contract, which was due to expire this month, but it then became clear that it would be difficult to appoint a replacement so quickly. Dr Borg’s position has therefore been extended until he reaches sixty, in January 2002.

The differences between the chairman of the trustees, Paula Ridley, and the director have come at a difficult moment for the V&A. Visitor numbers fell again last year, to 946,000, the lowest figure for a decade. Although work is proceeding well on the British Galleries, fundraising has proved much more of a challenge, and up to £8 million may have to be “raided” from the museum’s budget and funds.

Further money for the Spiral building is proving just as elusive, and it now appears increasingly unlikely that it will ever be built. More fundamentally, there is a feeling among some of the trustees that the V&A “doesn’t know where it is going”. Having a director and chairman at odds only adds to the problems, and decisions on many key issues are now being postponed.

There is a brighter side. The recent “Art Nouveau” exhibition was a spectacular success, both at a scholarly level and with the public (it attracted 231,000 visitors, making it the V&A’s most successful show for a decade). Three more potential blockbusters are now under preparation—“The Victorians” (April-July 2001), “Art Deco” (Spring 2002) and “Late Gothic Art in England” (October 2002-January 2003). The new British Galleries, opening in November 2001, will represent the biggest redisplay ever undertaken at the museum. Other galleries have recently opened, such as those for photography and silver. These are all among Dr Borg’s achievements.

Everyone agrees that the V&A is an extremely complex institution to run. Its nineteenth-century building is labyrinthine, it is among the world’s largest art museums (in size probably only exceeded by the British Museum, the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Metropolitan), its collections are extremely diverse (ranging from South East Asian art to Victorian sculpture casts), and decorative art never seems to have the popular appeal that it deserves.

The director’s post has become regarded as something of a poisoned chalice, with Dr Borg’s two predecessors having both resigned.

Tensions at the top

Although both sides are being extremely discreet, behind the polite façade there are clearly serious differences between the director and the trustees. Dr Borg resents the way in which the trustees have criticised his leadership and intervened, while Mrs Ridley and her trustees are concerned at how the museum is being run. So what went wrong?

In 1998, three years into Dr Borg’s directorship, the then chairman of the trustees, former Cabinet Secretary Lord Armstrong, was due to retire after his ten-year stint. It then proved extremely difficult for the museum and the government to agree upon a successor. Eventually a name suggested by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was accepted: Paula Ridley, chairman of the Liverpool Housing Action Trust and a trustee of the Tate Gallery and National Gallery.

After taking over in October 1998, Mrs Ridley quickly made her mark, speaking her mind and pushing for the museum to become much more “accessible”, with a clearer sense of direction. When she took over, she made trustee meetings monthly, rather than bi-monthly, so that they could keep a closer watch on what was happening. Mrs Ridley was also keen on giving the V&A a higher public profile. As she explained to The Art Newspaper last month: “One of the things which has struck me is how many marvellous things go on at the V&A which nobody knows about.”

Dr Borg and other senior museum staff regarded the new chairman as too interventionist, and tensions quickly developed. Mrs Ridley denies that she has meddled: “The role of the trustees is to discuss policy and strategy with the director, not to run the museum on a day-to-day basis. What I think is extremely important is that the trustees are properly furnished with information about all the decisions they have to take.” Nevertheless, if the V&A has problems, they are arguably issues for which both the director and the trustees should take a share of the responsibility. In the present situation there is a tendency for each side to the blame the other.

Within months of her arrival, Mrs Ridley was already thinking of trying to bring in a new director and last autumn the trustees provisionally decided against renewing Dr Borg’s contract. The feeling was that they wanted to bring in a fresh face to take the museum into the twenty-first century.

The job description

On 31 March the V&A issued a statement revealing that Dr Borg’s contract was to be extended for sixteen months and the trustees would be starting their search for a successor. Mrs Ridley was quoted as saying the announcement was being made “to avoid undue speculation”. There were no words of praise for Dr Borg’s achievements, only the comment that the extension of his contract would “ensure the continuity the trustees and the museum will need at this critical time, during which we need to complete the British Galleries and progress the Spiral.” Rather than dampening speculation, the terse statement had the reverse effect.

Headhunters GKR were brought in to find a successor, and the post was advertised in June at “up to £100,000” with a performance-related bonus. The main requirements were laid down: “Candidates must be outstanding leaders in their field, with the ability to embrace change, and possess an understanding of the creative opportunities offered by new technology. Strong intellect, energy and inspiration will be needed. Experience of developing relationships with the private sector is required as is the capacity to lead fundraising for major capital projects”. Noticeably missing is any mention of museum experience or scholarship, two qualities which have usually been sought in the past. Advertisements were placed in The Economist and The Financial Times, but not in the specialist art or museum press.

A shortlist is now being drawn up and interviews may well take place next month, with a possible decision by Christmas or else early in the new year. The successful candidate is likely to have to give three months’ notice, and may therefore not be available until the spring. Dr Borg might retire once the new candidate is available.

In the interim, important decisions are being delayed. Proposed organisational changes inside the museum involving the creation of the posts of collections director and collections management director have been put on hold. Much more seriously, fundraising for both the British Galleries and the Spiral have become very difficult. This is compounding the damage that occurred last time round, when the previous director left. This occurred in 1995, just after the Lottery had come on stream: Mrs Esteve-Coll had not really appreciated the potential of the Lottery and by the time the incoming Dr Borg was able to submit an application for the British Galleries, others such as the Tate Gallery had got in earlier. When the V&A’s application was eventually considered, Lottery money was tighter and awards were smaller.

In addition to the names already mentioned in the press, The Art Newspaper has also learned that two senior figures from museums in Germany and the Netherlands have applied. At one point it looked as if Dr Simon Thurley of the Museum of London might have been interested, but he has denied that he put in an application. In the end, there appear to be no internal V&A candidates, although several staff did seriously consider applying. Most of the candidates whose names have emerged are from museums, but the trustees are also likely to consider arts administrators with wider experience. Fortunately, it now seems unlikely that they will go for a business figures, much to the relief of the V&A curatorial staff.

The challenges

The Spiral Contrary to press speculation, the new director may not be required to be a Spiral-enthusiast, although the trustees are still very keen. When the dramatic Daniel Libeskind-designed orientation building was first proposed in 1996, it seemed as if the project might get 50% funding from the Lottery, but it is now clear that it would be lucky if it eventually gets 10% of the costs. Of the £80 million needed, the considerable sum of £30 million has been promised by anonymous donors. Most of the £1.5 million given by the Headley Trust (Sir Timothy and Lady Sainsbury) has already been spent on design work. There is a growing feeling that it may now have become too difficult to raise the additional £50 million, and the new director will have to make a decision on whether to push forward or drop the Spiral.

The British Galleries The museum originally applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for 75% of the costs, but the application took a considerable time to evaluate and by the time the award was eventually made in July 1998 it covered only 50%—£16 million towards the £31 million project. So far the museum has raised £7 million, leaving £8 million to find from its own resources. Work on the galleries is proceeding on schedule for opening in November 2001.

Visitor numbers Last year visitors numbered 946,000 visitors (falling below those of the smaller National Portrait Gallery). Mrs Ridley admits that the figure is “disturbing”, and she finds it difficult to explain what went wrong. The “Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms” exhibition (119,000 visitors) had a fairly limited appeal, but it did bring in many first-time Asian visitors, and “A Grand Design” (43,000) failed to attract visitors because it comprised items from the permanent collection. Income from admission charges fell from £2.5 million in 1998-99 to just £1.8 million last year. Dr Borg admits that attracting more visitors is a challenge: “Decorative arts museums are difficult. We are also competing against more and more visitor attractions. Perhaps what the V&A had not done well enough is to cultivate new audiences.” This year’s results will be helped by the success of “Art Nouveau”, although the museum will have been hit by the opening of Tate Modern and other millennium projects.

Admission charges Here there are marked “philosophical” differences between the current director and his chairman. Dr Borg, who encouraged the trustees to make voluntary charges compulsory in 1996, says he “honestly believes that charging doesn’t make much difference to visitor figures”. Although he would prefer the proposed “quids in” system (£1 adult admission with additional DCMS grant in aid), we “do require assurances from government that we will be properly compensated” - and that the museum will continue to be able to reclaim Value Added Tax. Mrs Ridley says she “personally believes that introducing charges was the biggest political (with a small “p”) mistake that the V&A has made. It lost us a lot of the high ground.” Decisions on charges cannot wait for the appointment of a new director. The V&A is currently involved in negotiations with DCMS over “quids in”, and if these fail then the adult admission charge may have to be increased from £5 to £6, a prospect which the trustees admit has “horrified” them.

The outside museums The three outside museums run by the V&A all pose very different problems. The Bethnal Green National Museum of Childhood has been a source of concern to Mrs Ridley, who says it seems to have been “set up by someone who didn’t know anything about children”. But she is happy with the appointment last June of a new Bethnal Green director, Diane Lees, and is hoping for changes. The Theatre Museum in Covent Garden is “a cuckoo in the nest, not an obvious fit with the V&A”, and Mrs Ridley would be happy for it to be established as an independent trust, a solution supported by Theatre Museum head, Margaret Benton. Consultants are currently examining the options, but it would be necessary to raise funds. Apsley House now looks set to be taken away from V&A administration, because the Wellington family are unhappy with the way it has been run, and earlier this year DCMS commissioned a study to examine its future. Mrs Ridley says she would be very sad if it was hived off: “I am not convinced that an independent trust could fund the proper running of Apsley House.”

Contemporary The V&A has wanted to become more involved in contemporary design, but Mrs Ridley believes that much more needs to be done. “In the past few years it has not been very successful, and we should raise the contemporary profile. It not only represents a central purpose for the museum, but it also brings in a totally new audience.”

Masterplan Although not formally announced, the V&A has commissioned DEGW to prepare a masterplan on how make best use of its complex building. One of the ideas is to turn the galleries around the Pirelli Garden into public facilities, with a bookshop and café. The museum also desperately needs a greater area of flexible space for temporary exhibitions and displays.

The future Although there is a general feeling of concern among the trustees, they have not yet formulated the solutions, and ideas will be sought from the new director. “We do not have a blueprint for the twenty-first century,” explained Mrs Ridley.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Decorative arts flagship seeks captain'