The director of the National Gallery on NFTs, opportunities in the art world, and the dignity of work in an interview by Christopher Jackson.
What’s your favourite picture in the National Gallery?
I think my favourite picture changes all the time, and when you when you mentioned favourite pictures, suddenly, what came to my mind was that very beautiful Zurbarán still life of the cup of water on a plate with a rose, which was a picture that was acquired when I was a curator here in the mid 90s. It’s a picture that you feel you’re growing with. It’s a picture that artists have always been very, very interested in actually since it came into the public domain having come into the gallery, and it’s so interesting to see many artists responding to the quietness and the intensity of that painting.
How did you find your passion for art?
I took on a fourth A-level when I went to school, which was art history, and I didn’t know anything about it. I was very fortunate to go to school in Dulwich, where you have the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Our first art history class took place in the gallery in front of the Rembrandt gallery window, and I thought, “this is wonderful!”
At that point, how much did you know about the opportunities in the art world?
I had no idea that there were jobs in museums or that there were jobs in teaching, or even what art history really was, but that first art history class really opened up a whole new horizon. And then I was able to go to university and study art history. I was very committed and very focused, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to carry on working in the museum profession ever since.
Do you need an MA as well as a BA, or to earn a PhD to find a place at the National Gallery?
Not necessarily. I mean, more people are doing art history at a higher level, so there are many more PhDs in art history than there were when I was a 20-year-old. But I think there are still lots of other areas within museums, whether it’s press or design, or even people who have an interest in art but have a specialisation in human resources, for example. There’s always work to be done in museums and in the cultural sector.
How do you feel about NFTs?
I’m not so sure about the NFT phenomenon, and I don’t really think there’s one that’s for us. I do think the National Gallery has become more and more interested in the intersection between historic art and the kind of vision that contemporary artists have, and I certainly wanted to extend and enrich that relationship.
What role does the National Gallery play in inspiring new artists?
There are a lot of contemporary artists coming to the National Gallery talking about pictures and actually responding to works in the National Gallery in their own work, and I think it’s very exciting that this is a living collection. It’s one that’s throwing up questions about art, about life, about society. In a sense, the whole of life is in the National Gallery, and it’s only natural that contemporary artists should be taking an interest in what’s shown here.
Who do you see as the great artist of work?
I take occasion of the fact that we’re here in the Winslow Homer exhibition, he’s an artist who highlighted work, particularly in the pictures of the fisherfolk women who stay at home while the fishermen go out in their boats to face danger and the risk of not returning. It just gives you a sense of the impressive human qualities of people in the past. There’s this dignity of labour, the dignity of work, and I think that comes across very strongly.