Power & influence in the arts: visual arts: Scholar, salesman, pragmatist and poet: He came from nowhere, but his innovations at the National Gallery have made him the most respected director of his time. Iain Gale on Neil MacGregor, a man of many parts

Click to follow
He was a 'sleeper': the lot at an auction that no one really considers, but which turns out to be the star of the sale; a masterpiece detected only by one or two experts. The experts in this case were the trustees of the National Gallery; the sleeper its youthful Director, Neil MacGregor, whose appointment in 1986 took the art world completely by surprise.

There was a good deal of criticism at the time. Who was this editor of the specialist art journal The Burlington Magazine? He had never even worked in a museum let alone run one of the world's most esteemed galleries. The man for that job must be a rare combination of scholar and salesman, pragmatist and poet. Today, however, one year into his second term, MacGregor has shown himself to be all these things - and more. 'The National Gallery is the great success story of our time,' says Robin Simon, editor of MacGregor's erstwhile rival publication Apollo. 'Neil is probably the most successful Director they've ever had.'

During his eight-year tenure, MacGregor has transformed the appearance of the old core of the gallery and presided over the building of the new Sainsbury wing. Aware that, in the words of the Prince of Wales, the National Gallery is 'a much-loved friend', he has done so with subtlety and care. Contrast his achievement with the changes wrought at the increasingly commercial V&A by his equally innovative counterpart Elizabeth Esteve Coll. Not for MacGregor 'an ace caff with a museum attached'.

From the start, MacGregor's principal aim was to improve the gallery's ability to educate. 'The more people know about pictures,' he said, 'the more they enjoy them.' In his view, scholarship and public accessibility are not mutually exclusive. Walking into the gallery today, the visitor immediately feels welcome. As Simon says: 'It's friendly, open, accessible. Serious but never solemn.'

The serious foundation for MacGregor's education policy stems from his own academic background. While at the Courtauld, he was described by its then Principal, Anthony Blunt, as the most brilliant student he had ever taught. MacGregor brought this scholarship to his editorship of The Burlington Magazine where five years' experience gave him the ability to communicate clearly and well.

He now communicates not only through his continued writing, but through the gallery itself. He once defined his job as being 'to enable the public to move around the past with confidence'. This they can now do, moving through the halls of a gallery whose walls carry clear explanatory labels for all of the pictures, themselves now re-hung under his personal supervision in single tiers. The old 19th-century convention of hanging in national schools has also largely been done away with, giving a more coherent overview.

When he took up his position, MacGregor was well aware that he would be in charge of 'the most representative collection of European art in the world'. But he was also conscious of his responsibility as the Director to continue the expansion of that collection. Able immediately to identify the areas in which the gallery was deficient, he has tailored his acquisitions policy to making good these failings. MacGregor's permanent legacy to the gallery is already considerable. Among his most celebrated purchases are an important Cuyp, Holbein's Lady with a Squirrel and Starling, a double portrait by Lucas Cranach and, most recently, the David portrait of Vicomtesse Vilain XIIII with her Daughter, an admirable addition to the gallery's notoriously weak holding of French 19th-century paintings.

These acquisitions are all the more remarkable when one considers the risible sums at his disposal. In 1984, the gallery's meagre annual budget was cut from pounds 3.3m to pounds 2.75m. In July last year, its grants for 1993-4 were slashed by a further four per cent. Yet, somehow, MacGregor has managed to keep buying. He seems to conjure money from the air: dollars 5.25m for the David, pounds 10m for the Holbein. How does he do it?

Certainly, he has an excellent relationship with the dealers and auction houses. He is also supported by a skilled Development department which spends its time persuading the larger City companies to become corporate benefactors. But part of the secret is that, for someone perceived primarily as a scholar, MacGregor himself is surprisingly good at networking. His sheer enthusiasm gives him an uncanny knack of persuading the right people to part with their money, or their pictures, at the right time. Help from the National Art Collections Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and individual bequests such as the J Paul Getty Junior endowment seems to come in the nick of time.

MacGregor's direct involvement in such deliverances can only be speculative, but it is crystal clear in his most famous coup to date, the loan of the Berggruen collection. 'Were it not for Neil's extraordinary enthusiasm and active support,' Heinz Berggruen himself admitted, 'I might have shied away.' Had he done so the nation would have lost out on the loan of one of the world's most magnificent collections of modern masters. It was MacGregor's own infectious passion for art that clinched the deal.

For MacGregor, his position as Director is not just a job; it is more a crusade. 'The whole gallery is infused with a sense of mission,' observes Simon. MacGregor attacks his task with a quasi-religious fervour which betrays his upbringing. Born in Scotland in 1946, he grew up in a household where the only conceivable professions for a son were the (Presbyterian) church, medicine and law. Following an eclectic education in Glasgow, Oxford and Paris, it was to the Bar that he turned, reading law at Edinburgh for five years before going into practice. It was not until the age of 27 that MacGregor entered the Courtauld Institute to study art history.

The meticulous eye for detail gained from his legal training still informs his every move. But there is a deeper-rooted legacy present in MacGregor's working philosophy. He embraces a Calvinist's democratic belief that culture should belong to the people, that our National Gallery should be a place to which we want to return time and again. The National Gallery is a British institution, he believes, not just a venue on a tourist map. To run a gallery specifically to cater for the one-off tourist visitor is the greatest calumny that any director can perpetrate. He is, as a result, passionately opposed to an entrance charge.

MacGregor's mission is for cultural rebirth. Far from the dour Scot of popular myth, MacGregor is a pragmatic visionary, a Scottish enlightenment man re-incarnated for the 20th century with a breadth of imagination that transforms his populism from the merely beneficent into the inspired. It is not sufficient for MacGregor's public to view room after room of visual splendours. They must also fully comprehend what they see. For this to happen they must interact with individual paintings in 'a dialogue between the spectator and the picture.'

For MacGregor the microscopic is the key to the macrocosmic. To this end he has instituted the Sainsbury Wing's Micro computer gallery and the highly popular 'Paintings in Focus' and 'Brief Encounters' series of exhibitions in which one or two works are examined in detail.

Neil MacGregor is a man of many parts: lawyer, scholar, committee man, but there is one unique ingredient in his make-up that gives him the edge. 'He's a charmer' says Simon. 'He always appears to have time for everybody.' Norman Rosenthal, Exhibitions Secretary at the RA, agrees. 'For the first time there isn't a tension between the National Gallery and the Royal Academy. We're working for the same cause. Neil stands up for the belief that the museum belongs to the people.' As MacGregor puts it: 'The British visitors who come to the National gallery are not customers. They are owners.'

His words echo those of Sir George Beaumont, first benefactor of the gallery, uttered a year before its opening in 1824: 'Works of art are not merely toys for the connoisseur, but solid objects of concern for the nation.'

(Photograph omitted)