London Calling

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Another day, another time zone. Late yesterday I caught a flight from Athens to London, to catch up with the fall shows here and maybe trip over that crack that Doris Salcedo has run down the floor of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. (Where’s my lawyer!!) I deliberately postponed this trip until after the Frieze Fair, London’s fall season art market blow out. With that out of the way, by late October it’s possible in this city to focus a little more on the art, a little less on the market.

Which doesn’t mean I’m having nothing but high minded thoughts on this trip. Artworld shoptalk in London right now is focused on the local version of museum director musical chairs, a subject we know all about in the U.S. The new focus is the search for a successor to Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Gallery, who abruptly resigned last March after five years on the job to become chief executive of the Royal Academy. The British papers figured Smith’s departure stemmed from run-ins with Peter Scott, chairman of the Gallery’s Board of Trustees, though not, it appears, over questions of exhibition policy that would matter to you or me. Then just this month, Scott also resigned, possibly because the other trustees had had their fill of the squabbling generally.

Smith came to the National Gallery from its next door neighbor the National Portrait Gallery, where as director he mounted a few shows that raised eyebrows for being too “populist”, especially one of Mario Testino photographs of Princess Diana, Jerry Hall, etc. That show struck me as ok for the Portrait Gallery, which has never really operated to the standards of an art museum. It’s purpose first is to get portraits of notable Brits, whatever the artistic quality, and in any case magazine photography is the portraiture of our time.

But if Smith had brought the same standards to the National Gallery it would have been a big mistake, the very mistake Malcolm Rogers, another former Portrait Gallery director, has made a few times as head of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But the exhibitions Smith mounted were solid, even terrific, including a major gathering in 2005 of late Caravaggios and last year’s all out treatment of Velazquez, a big success for the museum. (Though to be honest I preferred the quieter Holbein show over at Tate Britain.)

To find a replacement for Smith the National Gallery has set up a search committee that includes two trustees familiar to Americans — Mark Getty, who’s father founded the Getty in L.A., and James Fenton, the British poet and art critic who’s a regular in the pages of The New York Review of Books. In The Financial Times this past weekend, Anthony-Haden Guest identified the “rumoured” front runners for Smith’s old job as three former National Gallery curators: Nicholas Penny, now senior curator of sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington; Gabriele Finaldi, now deputy director of the Prado, and Axel Ruger, now director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Haden-Guest mentions Malcolm Rogers, who was passed over for the job once before, as being on “the longer list”.

Interestingly, the search committee was expected to have made its recommendation in September. “It is said”, says Haden-Guest, “that the committee is deadlocked.”

I’ll have more on London, and on Athens, throughout this week.