The Tate Welcomes Maria Balshaw


11 January 2017

The appointment of Maria Balshaw as Nicholas Serota’s successor as director of Tate is to be celebrated.

Balshaw’s record is exemplary. Her curatorial success at the Whitworth and Manchester Art Galleries has been well documented, as has her capacity to implement major infrastructural works. She led the £15m redevelopment of the Whitworth, which was unveiled in 2015, but even prior to its temporary closure in 2012 had increased annual visitor numbers at the gallery from 100,000 to 190,000.

What should also be celebrated is the sense of freshness and optimism around the appointment: no mean achievement considering that Balshaw has been a favourite for the position since Serota announced his resignation in September 2016. At around the same time as Serota’s announcement, Martin Roth, director of the V&A, also resigned. It prompted Sonnett Stanfill, a curator at the V&A, to pen an article speculating on how the two museums might respond to these vacancies. Stanfill’s article is outstanding and remains worth seeking out, even with the announcement of Balshaw’s imminent appointment moving the debate on from possibilities to actualities.

Titled ‘Taking On the Boys’ Club at the Art Museum’, the article argued powerfully against a dearth of women in senior posts in cultural institutions around the world. “In 2015, the world’s top 12 art museums as based on attendance — what I call the “directors’ dozen” — were all led by men,” she wrote. “This gender gap extends from Europe to North America, where only five of the 33 directors of the most prominent museums (those with operating budgets of more than $20m) are women, including Kaywin Feldman of the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Nathalie Bondil of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It’s the leaders of those big-budget institutions who set the tone for all.”

Stanfill set out the need for greater diversity in museum management (the article is geared towards gender, but it is worth reflecting that its basic arguments could equally be applied to race) in concise fashion: “Senior managers decide what goes on the walls, and this in turn shapes what the public values and remembers. The male dominance in leadership at the directors’ dozen helps to explain why so much of what’s on display is man-made, rather than work by female artists.”

Stanfill’s words were widely published, but it was nonetheless tempting to read them without much cause for hope. Certainly the V&A and Tate had an opportunity to redress a widely known imbalance, but whether either institution would take steps to break away from the Boys’ Club of Stanfill’s title seemed uncertain. It felt all too easy to imagine that the status quo would ultimately be maintained, with both institutions favouring a white, male candidate drawn from the arts establishment. The opening of the Guerrilla Girls's Is It even worse in Europe?, an exhibition on this precise theme, at London's Whitechapel Gallery in October 2016 seemed to capture the ongoing bleakness of the situation.

There is every reason to be optimistic about the Tate’s future under Balshaw’s directorship. There is also reason to be optimistic that, for once, the prospect of a break from traditional hegemony was actualised, rather than remaining a hypothetical conversation point. Balshaw is the first woman to lead the Tate in its history and joins a management structure that now includes managing director Kerstin Mogull and Tate Modern director Frances Morris. The need for greater diversity within the arts continues to be a pressing issue, but Balshaw’s appointment is at least a welcome sign that progress might be possible – particularly at a time when other areas of society seem perversely committed to turning the clock backwards.