Obituary: Corinne Bellow
Friday 28 May 1999
Sir Roy Strong once said of his own museum experience in the late Fifties, that you were "always to put the telephone down on members of the press". Bellow changed and shaped the Tate's approach to press and sponsorship over 34 years, many of them at a time when even thinking about public relations was rare among museums and galleries.
In 1954, the Tate, like all the other national museums except the Victoria and Albert, had no press or PR office; these things were dealt with personally by the director. Rothenstein was the most high profile of all the directors, in charge of a gallery which, with its modern art, was often in the news and seemingly never far from controversy. Bellow came in the immediate aftermath of the so-called "Tate Affair" in which allegations about fund shuffling, followed by the resignation of the artist Graham Sutherland as a trustee, culminated in the trustees having to decide whether or not to fire the director - a public relations disaster.
Bellow came from a well- established Leeds family. After graduating in Modern Languages from Leeds University she continued her studies at the Sorbonne followed by a year at the University of Perugia and a period working in Paris as a translator. Rothenstein, too, had a strong Leeds connection. Like Bellow's, his family had also prospered in the Yorkshire textile industry and he had been Director of the City Art Gallery in 1932-33. In his interview with Bellow, they spent much of the time talking about a mutual Leeds friend, the artist Jacob Kramer.
Rothenstein early on felt able to trust his new assistant with increasing responsibilities. Outside the gallery he referred to her as his "eminence grise". He valued in particular "her organising capacity, her sense of proportion, her benevolent, reassuring presence". Soon, she became the only other person in the Tate to deal with press enquiries and, increasingly, after the gallery became independent of the National Gallery in 1955, took a bigger part in the way changes were introduced.
After Rothenstein retired in 1964 Bellow continued as assistant to his successor Norman (later Sir Norman) Reid for two more years. Rothenstein had already suggested that she might take up a career in publishing - she had translated from the French, and edited, Huisman's and Dortu's substantial book Lautrec by Lautrec (1964). The Arts Review commented that the translation "read like an original" and the same deftness of touch can be found in her translation, from the Italian, of Alberto Martini's essay on Monet which appeared in the weekly part-work The Masters in 1966. None the less, Bellow decided to stay at the Tate.
Under Reid's wise directorship the Tate during the 1960s and 1970s possessed an extraordinary energy and ability both to catch and contribute to the exciting mood of the times. The completely rehung collections opened to the public in early 1967 and took annual visitor numbers over the million mark for the first time. All this meant a steadily rising demand from press and visitors alike for information, a heightened awareness of visitor comfort and an awareness of the Tate image and how press interest in it might actually be initiated rather than just reacted to.
Since in her work so far there was barely an aspect of these matters she had not already dealt with, it was inevitable that Corinne Bellow, by 1966 Press and Information Officer, should have particular responsibility for them in the director's team.
Before deciding on this change in her career, she had discussed it with Charles Gibbs-Smith, Keeper of Public Relations at the Victoria and Albert Museum - still the only national museum to have such a post. An eminent aviation historian of huge energy who believed in flying saucers and ghosts, Gibbs-Smith paced up and down his office swinging a golf club while talking encouragingly.
In 1970 Bellow became Head of Information Services. In this post, hampered by lack of funds and staff, she showed considerable originality in conceiving ways, now taken for granted across the museums' world, of raising the Tate's profile. This was not that simple. The gallery, for all its youthful zest, was still governed by civil service rules and many achievements which fell outside the Whitehall norm were hard won.
The possibility of advertising an exhibition widely, other than through posters, at minimum cost, first manifested itself in her persuading the Publications Department to produce a "flyer" for the 1970 Richard Hamilton exhibition. This was a "first" for the gallery and it was sent to individuals and organisations on a specially created mailing list - itself an innovation - in addition to which Bellow and an assistant went round the trendy shops in the King's Road persuading the owners to display them.
Another "first" - this time a real "flyer" - was commissioning artist- designed kites for sale in the Tate shop as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations of 1972. They were the first in a series of artist works commissioned as a way of generating good publicity. Bellow enjoyed flying one of the kites on Brighton beach.
With the Heath government's 1970 decision to impose entrance charges on national museums, she spotted a way of at last securing a departmental budget for advertising. Her logic was impeccable: since the gallery was going into business, then it had to have money to advertise itself. She approached the Central Office of Information, eventually received pounds 13,000, and was equally successful in subsequent years.
Publication of a free monthly calendar of events began and the way the Tate welcomed its visitors changed radically. The information point behind a small window off the main circulation space was replaced in 1973 by a large new Information Desk next to the main entrance. With its full complement of staff it was perhaps the finest expression of Bellow's enduring mission, in her own words, "to enhance the pleasure" of visitors. None of this could have happened without close attention to detail and it was just this which suggested to her one solution to the difficult problem of how to make the Tate, before the opening of Pimlico tube station in 1972, more accessible.
She noticed from her office overlooking the Thames that while there was no bus route passing the Tate entrance, one went across Lambeth Bridge and ran along the road opposite the Tate on the other side of the river. Why not, she asked, change the route so that it went in front of the gallery and crossed the river at Vauxhall Bridge further upstream instead? Once again the logic was irresistible and London Transport agreed to reroute the number 77 bus which ever since has stopped outside the gallery.
In 1977 Bellow had what she called her "baptism by all the elements" in the field of fundraising when the Tate decided to launch a public appeal to save two important paintings by George Stubbs. One element in it was the placing of two Minis (the main prizes in a lottery) in the central Sculpture Gallery. The positive publicity which the appeal generated under Bellow's skilful guidance was substantial - not least in the way she brought the London Evening Standard into the campaign. However, a perception within the Tate that it was inappropriate for a major national institution actively to seek outside, particularly commercial, funding for its activities remained, though the fact that the institution was young, "modern" and built on such largesse (Henry Tate's) somehow promised the right conditions for sponsorship to flourish when the moment came.
From the 1970s Bellow played an active part in the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and she was the first chairman of their Public Relations Committee when it was established in 1976 - a post she held until 1983. In 1986, the first ever handbook on museum public relations, Public View, with Bellow as contributing editor, was published by ICOM.
She felt it right that she should put her expertise at the disposal of other individuals and institutions and this she did freely. For example, she became a trustee of the Victor Musgrave and Monika Kinley Outsider Art Collection in 1987. But it was particularly her knowledge of sponsorship in the major museums around the world, combined with an acute awareness of the ethical issues which concerned the director and trustees, which enabled her to guide the Tate's first steps in this direction.
The Landseer exhibition of 1981-82, sponsored by S. Pearson and Son, was the first fruit of what was very much a personal initiative. Throughout her later career as a fundraiser, what gratified Bellow most was, first, the way many sponsors were happy to return to help the Tate - and a large part of this success was attributable to the fact that sponsors liked dealing with her - and second, that the beneficiaries of such funding were not only the Tate and its public but also the corporations and their PR agencies. She was careful that this should be the end result and that was the key to her success.
By the time of her retirement in 1988, Corinne Bellow had raised more than pounds 2m for the Tate. In retirement, she taped recorded interviews for the Tate Archive with more than 50 past and present gallery trustees and members of staff. As a colleague she was a warm, strong and perceptive counsellor. In her private life she was an unwavering friend to many and she enjoyed 28 rich and happy years with her partner Sidney Wasserman.
Corinne Bellow, museum official: born Leeds 1 December 1927; Press and Information Officer, Tate Gallery 1966-70, Head of Information Service 1970-88; MBE 1973; died London 3 May 1999.
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