Who’s in the artistic power seat?

Ella Hill discusses Tristram Hunt’s appointment at the V&A and the continuation of gender inequality in the UK’s major museums

It is easy to feel ambivalent about the V&A’s appointment of Tristram Hunt to the position of Director. On the one hand, his appointment looks like more of the same, yet another man being appointed to the top job in a major national institution.

Sceptics might also wonder at the decision to select Hunt—a politician and a historian— for this role, his experience within the world of heritage and museums is, after all, rather limited. However, Hunt may in fact be an extremely prudent choice to take the helm of the V&A at this moment in time. Hunt’s experience in the political realm could be a real boon to the museum as it navigates the choppy-waters of post-Brexit Britain. Is he the right person for the job in the current climate?

Many will express dismay that a woman could not have been selected for this high profile position, especially given the gender imbalance in top-level appointments within the museums sector. According to a study by Arts Council England published in 2015, there are more women than men working in the UK’s major museums, with 58 per cent of the workforce being female.

Nevertheless, even a cursory glance over the names populating the list of members of the National Museum Directors’ Council (NMDC) will show you the disparity in the numbers of male versus female leaders in UK museums. The only major national museums directed by a woman are the National Museums of Northern Ireland, run by Kathryn Thomson. The others, such as the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the British Museum are overwhelmingly run by men.

However, it is not all bad news for female leaders in UK museums and galleries. Following the departure of director Julia Peyton Jones after 25 years of service, Yana Peel was installed at the Serpentine Gallery in 2016. Likewise, in January last year, Frances Morris—a curator at the Tate since 1987—was made director of the Tate Modern.

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In more even more promising news from the Tate, Maria Balshaw, the current director of the hugely successful Manchester Whitworth Gallery, has been tipped as the favourite to take over leadership at the Tate from Sir Nicholas Serota. It looks, at least tentatively, as if tides are turning in the cultural sector, with more and more women rising to the top. Whilst Hunt’s appointment won’t do anything to change the status quo, at least it won’t stem this wave of progress either.

Where Hunt really could make serious headway is by being a strong advocate for museums, culture, and heritage, and their importance in the public domain. According to the Guardian, the previous director of the V&A, Martin Roth, resigned from his position as
a result of his “disillusionment at the Brexit vote.” One of the major concerns for the arts and culture industry is the security of their funding post-Brexit, in particular for regional development projects. With plans in place for developments in Stratford and Dundee, this will be at the forefront of the minds of the V&A’s senior management team.

Tristram Hunt and some colourful pottery
Tristram Hunt and some colourful pottery.

In his constituency at Stoke-on-Trent, Hunt displayed his commitment to regional development by acting as a strong voice in the successful ‘Save Wedgewood’ campaign. The campaign allowed this important collection of UK ceramics, threatened with sale, to remain at the Wedgewood Museum, on loan from the V&A. Hunt’s political experience and contacts, as well as his familiarity with the media, will grant him a unique platform to raise the profile of the arts as a key sector in the UK economy, allowing for these important regional regeneration projects to continue. In its recent exhibitions, in particular the hit David Bowie retrospective, the V&A has proved itself a mover and a shaker in the museums world. Let’s hope that under Hunt’s tenure the museum continues to reach such heights of innovation and ingenuity.