Strike hit National Gallery to hold Eugene Delacroix and Caravaggio exhibitions in 2016

Gallery's new boss says he hopes it will reopen fully following months of industrial action over pay

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The Independent Culture

The new director of the National Gallery has vowed to make the institution the “centre of cultural activity” in London and hopes it will fully reopen soon after months of disruptive strikes.

Gabriele Finaldi announced the National’s 2016 programme of exhibitions including on Delacroix and Caravaggio, his first public pronouncements since starting as director in August. He said taking on the role was “completely daunting” but added he was “delighted and thrilled”.

“The programme we presented reflects the ambition of the National Gallery to be at the centre of the cultural activity, the cultural life of London,” he said. As well as developing international collaborations he wants to develop the gallery’s research potentials and continue to make significant acquisitions.

After outlining “a few pointers,” he said: “I’ve just started. I’ve still got boxes in my room. It is early days but there’s a very exciting future ahead for the museum.”

Dr Finaldi was announced as succeeding former director Nicholas Penny in March. New chair Hannah Rothschild, who led the selection process for the new director, called it an “impossible role to fill” yesterday.

“We need a great scholar, an administrator, a public servant, an accounting officer, a communicator, we need someone who inspires great confidence both within the gallery and outside it,” she said.

The search took the trustees across Europe to the Americas and even as far as Tasmania but “right from the word go we kept hearing whispers of one particular name,” Ms Rothschild said. “The whisper turned into a roar, and the roar was the name Gabriele Finaldi.”

Under Dr Penny, the gallery grew to record visitor numbers hitting 6.4 million last year and he oversaw blockbuster exhibitions such as Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan and the recent Rembrandt: The Late Works.

“I’m full of admiration for what Nick achieved here,” he said. “As far as digital operations is concerned there is a lot to do. It’s important.”

Yet, the dispute with staff threatened to tarnish Dr Penny’s legacy. Following months of walkouts, the main doors of the gallery were shut temporarily in August over the dispute over plans to privatise visitor services.

“We’ve tried very hard to keep as much of the gallery open as possible,” Dr Finaldi said. “It has been difficult for the gallery and difficult for the staff but we felt it was a necessary move.”

The contract with Securitas was signed in early August and begins in November. “My concern as director is that transition happens as smoothly as we make it happen.”

He said he hoped to offer a gallery that is “completely open and functioning normally” as people expected and “I hope that will happen quite soon”.

Dr Finaldi knows the institution well after working there as a curator for a decade and then working on joint project with the National Gallery during his time as deputy director of the Prado national museum in Spain. “It’s quite different to see it from the director’s office than from Madrid,” he said.

The first major exhibition to be staged under Dr Finaldi’s leadership will be Goya: The Portraits, which opens next week. Curators at yesterday’s event revealed that major shows for 2016 included the first major Eugene Delacroix exhibition in the UK in half a century and one on Caravaggio and his influence.

The gallery is waiting to find out the funding cuts it and the rest of the arts faces from the Government’s spending review announced in November. Dr Finaldi believes that whatever the outcome, the institution will have to increasingly call on the generosity of wealthy patrons.