‘People are still besotted with European art. It is the main story’

·8-min read
Looking to the past and the future: Gabriele Finaldi at the National Gallery - Rii Schroer
Looking to the past and the future: Gabriele Finaldi at the National Gallery - Rii Schroer

“We do lots of things at the National Gallery which are very serious and scholarly,” says its director, Gabriele Finaldi. “So, it’s perfectly OK to generate some excitement and glitziness as well.” Sitting in a sparse office overlooking Trafalgar Square, Finaldi – a deep-voiced, patriarchal figure, who, at 57, has already run the gallery for seven years – is referring to a red-carpet event taking place there tonight: London’s answer, if you like, to the extravagant gala held every spring at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The evening, which is expected to be attended by stars, including Sienna Miller, Damian Lewis and Bill Nighy, will launch a fundraising campaign for the gallery’s bicentenary celebrations in 2024 – details of which, under the heading “NG200”, are announced today. And Finaldi hopes that the party’s theme, “The Alchemist’s Feast”, will encourage guests to turn the base metal of goodwill into the gold of donations – because the gallery’s ambitious plans, which include a series of “significant” capital projects, will cost £95 million.

That may sound like a lot to secure the gallery’s future, but Finaldi believes that the art in its collection is of “fundamental” importance to both Britain and the world. And never more so than today, when the pre-eminence of the European tradition, which the collection represents, is no longer a given.

“We are at a time where we feel we constantly need to challenge the past. And we think a lot of what’s come from the past is bad and needs to be corrected,” he says. “[But] there’s an awful lot from the past which is ultimately what we rest on. You may want to challenge what the National Gallery represents, and say it’s irrelevant. You may want to say that our institution should be moving in different directions. And that’s all fine. But I do think that what we have here is, in a way, the main story.”

Besides, he says, “What we find is that people are still besotted by this tradition. They love to come and see Raphael and Michelangelo and Velázquez and Caravaggio, because they have an elemental interest for us. They tell us things which are revelatory about ourselves. Their works have extraordinary technical skill. They reach out to us.”

A fresh voyage: Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (1839) - Alamy
A fresh voyage: Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (1839) - Alamy

So far, he points out, the gallery has already managed to secure £50 million for the bicentenary programme, which he calls “a year-long festival of art”. Won’t finding the rest, though, prove a challenge? It’s true, Finaldi agrees, “certain kinds of support, which we were perfectly comfortable with a generation ago, no longer work for us”: recently, for instance, the gallery removed the Sackler family name, now synonymous with America’s opioid epidemic, from a room devoted to British art. But, he says, there are several “important conversations” on the go, and “normally, when you announce your campaign, you’re a third to halfway there”.

Still, led by Selldorf Architects, and due to last five or six years, the building work alone is set to cost £85 million – even though, according to Finaldi, “no new galleries” will be added. (The various projects may seem like “small interventions”, says Annabelle Selldorf, but “I can promise you they’re very complicated.”) A dedicated space for members, as well as an updated research centre, is in the offing. But the primary goal, Finaldi explains, is a “complete rethinking” of the entrance to the postmodern Sainsbury Wing to make it “more open and welcoming”. The first-floor restaurant will go, creating a “luminous” and “airy” double-height foyer, and the public space outside will be transformed.

Sacrifices will be necessary. From the end of this year, the entire extension will be closed until spring 2025. As a result, Finaldi concedes, “we’re probably looking at under half of the collection [of around 2,400 pictures] being on display”.

Recently, one former director of the gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith, described the Sainsbury Wing’s cramped, subterranean exhibition spaces as a “very significant defect” – and now its threshold is being remodelled. So, was the building, which opened in 1991, a mistake? “No,” replies Finaldi, who argues that it does “several” things “extremely well”: upstairs, he insists, the galleries are “practically perfect”. At the same time, he recognises the “limitations” of the basement. “In due course,” he says, “we need to resolve that. There’s a lot to think about beyond NG200.”

Monet's The Water-Lily Pond (1899, detail) - Alamy
Monet's The Water-Lily Pond (1899, detail) - Alamy

When the Sainsbury Wing finally reopens, there will be a “special” redisplay of the collection, with new thematic moments and trans-historical pairings. But “the pistol crack to start it all off,” says Finaldi, “is what we’re calling the National Treasures tour”: 12 exhibitions opening simultaneously across the four nations, 200 years after the gallery opened in a townhouse on Pall Mall, after Parliament had bought 38 pictures previously belonging to its owner, the banker John Julius Angerstein, for the enjoyment of all.

Each exhibition will showcase a “treasure” from the collection, including, as well as The Fighting Temeraire by Turner and Monet’s Water Lily Pond, the Wilton Diptych, a 14th-century altarpiece made for Richard II – which, Finaldi reveals, “has never been lent before.” Is the initiative an example of “levelling up”? “We need to listen to what the Government says,” Finaldi replies carefully. He prefers, though, to “talk about being a truly national gallery: if the people of this country own the collection, we must find ways to make that evident.”

Separately, the British artist Jeremy Deller will unveil a new and, as Finaldi puts it, “festive” and “participatory” nationwide commission called The Triumph of Art. Since Deller’s collaborative work often involves parades and marches, will he draw inspiration from Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna, a 19th-century painting at the National Gallery by Frederic, Lord Leighton of a picture carried in procession through Florence’s streets? “That’s right,” Finaldi replies. “He was very struck by that actually.”

Back in London, there will be an exhibition devoted to Van Gogh – the gallery’s first. (“You might be surprised,” Finaldi says.) One of the principal challenges for both himself and his successors, Finaldi believes, is to tell “the story [of] what we have here, which we deeply believe in, and believe has universal value” – and ensure it will still be told two centuries hence. “Accessibility” and “relevance” are two of Finaldi’s watchwords – and before the pandemic, the strategy seemed to be working: “We were already starting to think about seven and eight million people coming,” he says. (Today, with international tourism still in the doldrums, “the figures are in the region of 30 to 40 per cent of where we were”.)

The National Gallery’s My Little Pony digital experiment last year drew a mixed reception, but Finaldi stands by it - Getty
The National Gallery’s My Little Pony digital experiment last year drew a mixed reception, but Finaldi stands by it - Getty

But Finaldi insists accessibility doesn’t come at the expense of erudition. He highlights the fact that, as part of NG200, he is investing in “a major research facility”: “Some people say, ‘Do you really need a research centre? Isn’t it more about reaching out to the great public?’ But if you don’t have the serious scholarly research that underpins everything, then you quickly fall into difficulties, and end up repeating banalities.”

Yet, he also acknowledges the difficulty of making palatable for a modern audience, say, “what’s going on in 14th-century Siena” (the subject of another newly announced exhibition, scheduled for 2025).

His solution? To carry on innovating with the gallery’s “mediating role”. The way forward, he believes, is “to speak in a language that is familiar, particularly to younger generations”. Thus, “with ‘immersive’ and digital ‘experiences’,” he says, “we’ve been out there on the forefront. They haven’t all been perfect” – last year, for instance, the gallery sanctioned a digital initiative with My Little Pony that my colleague Laura Freeman described as “truly awful” – “but I think they’ve shown a boldness in trying to reach the public in innovative ways. So, I stand by them.” Besides, he continues, “I hope the way I run the gallery keeps my interest in scholarship and missionary zeal in balance. I don’t think they’re opposed to each other.”

And, with that, this evangelist for the Old Masters departs to discuss an exhibition he’s curating next year – about the 13th-century Saint Francis of Assisi. Now, there’s a historical figure, fit for a “serious and scholarly” study, who, thanks to his love for the natural world, still feels remarkably “relevant”.

For more information about NG200, visit nationalgallery.org.uk

Do you think the National Gallery should be moving in different directions, or are you still "besotted" with European art? Tell us in the comments section below

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