A andorinha: Some thoughts on the appointment of Penelope Curtis as the new director of the Gulbenkian Museum

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou


In Portuguese, as in Greek, the popular saying “uma andorinha não faz a primavera” refers to the necessity of additional evidence before reaching any definitive conclusions. I half-dreamed the title of this post, while thinking about the recent appointment of Penelope Curtis as the new director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. I was excited that an international scholar, with a considerable scholarly and academic background, will be helming what is probably my favorite museum (the Iznik ceramics! among many, many other things). The announcement was nevertheless marred by reports focusing on the criticism she has received as director of the Tate Britain, making her transition to Portugal seem like a barely disguised downgrading (for her). This negative focus is even reflected in the way that the Gulbenkian Museum is referred to in the British press. I was incredulous, at best, when I saw it referred to as a “small gallery” in The Telegraph‘s article of two days ago. At worst, I was offended by the ignorance and the condescending tone of the writer.

Let me go ahead and say that I am not especially familiar with Curtis’s record as a curator and director and that I am not personally acquainted with her. Yet, strangely, I felt the need to speak up against these reviews that have widely circulated, even though Curtis looks like someone perfectly capable of waging her own battles. Criticism has focused on two major issues: her management of the Tate (yes, attendance dropped, but large parts of the museum were closed for refurbishment during a considerable period of time), and the exhibitions organized under her responsibility.

I have not seen any of these recent exhibitions that were reviled by the British press. I have only visited the new installation of the Tate Britain permanent collection (last May), but I would not readily agree that it was a resounding success. While it was refreshing to see showcased paintings such as Johan Zoffany’s Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match, the overall chronological display felt neither novel nor particularly illuminating. Furthermore, a surprising number of paintings are behind glass, making viewing, let alone taking pictures, almost an impossibility, particularly for the ones hung at the highest tiers. Other reasons are too personal to matter here (I shall never understand the fondness for Turner that makes the dedication of what seems like an interminable series of rooms dedicated to him a necessity). What’s more, opinions such as the one expressed by Richard Dorment, who positively reviewed the installation, remain highly suspect to me: “Though you can find all the information and interpretation you need about the pictures elsewhere, the galleries are about the pictures not their context” (my emphasis). This is an old-fashioned, even conservative view of an art museum, where aesthetic contemplation of works should be uppermost. No, thank you, I’ll take context any day of the week.

The occasional vitriol notwithstanding, the reviews directed against exhibitions such as Sculpture Victorious (running till May 25), are in and of themselves quite fascinating. First, because they demonstrate the vitality of art criticism in Great Britain. Imagine an art critic in Portugal demanding the head of a director of a national museum on a silver platter. Hell, imagine a bad review of a major exhibition published in one of the big news outlets, such as Público or Diário de Notícias. You can’t – because there aren’t any. Criticism in this country is tantamount to personal insult, so we politely refrain from it.

Thomas Longmore and John Hénk Elephant 1889, © Thomas Goode & Co. Ltd., London, from the Sculpture Victorious exhibition, Tate Britain, 2015

Thomas Longmore and John Hénk, Elephant, 1889, © Thomas Goode & Co. Ltd., London

The other notable thing about these reviews is their manifest bias. A bias regarding what art is and what it should do, and how museums that own it should display it. Of all the reviews that I read, the positive ones (such as this excellent one by Tristram Hunt) were not written by art critics and this is revealing of a trend. What is historically pertinent, educational or enlightening apparently failed to appeal to the art critics, who invariably complained about the poor quality of the art displayed and the incoherence of the objects selected.

What shines through in several of the reviewers’ comments is the sheer uncomfortableness of being confronted with their imperial past, ironically embodied in the splendidly kitsch earthenware elephant that adorns the exhibition. As Laura Cumming put it, not entirely condemning, yet perceptibly bothered by it, “Sculpture Victorious is essentially a show of official art, a gathering of imperial propaganda from salt cellars to electroplated monarchs. Like so many of the objects themselves, it is a history lesson in figurative form, not about the pleasures of looking so much as learning”.

The criticisms then do not simply target an exhibition (or the person who authorized it), but a way of doing art history. When Jonathan Jones writes about the upcoming Barbara Hepworth exhibition (co-curated by Curtis, who is an expert on twentieth-century sculpture) that Hepworth and Henry Moore, both “provincial” artists, are not “in the premier league”, he reveals a view of art and art history that is as comprehensive as it is antiquated. His is a hierarchically divided world between first-and-second rate artists, where recent debates concerning centers and peripheries, cultural transfers and the nature of the avant-garde and multiple modernities are virtually non-existent. One can exhibit, even be partial to “second rate artists”, but god forbid that they get the same amount of scholarly attention canonical artists do.

So, will Penelope Curtis spark similar debates in Portugal? Will she inaugurate an era of intellectually stimulating exhibitions that will be more than a loose accumulation of beautiful things to look at, as so many recent ones have been? Is a swallow enough to herald spring? It remains to be seen. But it’s definitely a start.