Michael Stanley: Curator and gallery director who was seen as a rising star in the art world


Michael Stanley, a shooting star in the art galaxy, was at the time of his untimely death, aged only 37, a Turner Prize judge and the Director of Modern Art Oxford. This remarkable institution has fostered the talents of Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate, Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery and his brother Andrew Nairne, Director of Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. Stanley's brief tenure added lustre to the position, and he was surely destined to mount to the same great heights.

He joined MAO in January 2009, and one of his triumphs, following his Karla Black show, was curating a thrilling, important exhibition of Howard Hodgkin's recent work, "Time and Place". A few months later Stanley showed Thomas Houseago's "What Went Down"; and he won plaudits for the Slovakian artist Roman Ondák's "Time Capsule" in 2011. He showed, too, how catholic his tastes were by mounting an exhibition of "Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World."

His most recent venture was a stunning, highly praised show of paintings by Jenny Saville, and on 28 September he should have opened at MAO a major exhibition of drawings, photographs and glass and bronze sculptures by the celebrated French artist Jean-Luc Moulène. In just over three years Stanley organised 24 shows, supplied MAO's café with produce from its own allotment on Rose Hill and arranged for its own-label beer to be brewed.

Stanley's creativity, imagination and ability to make rapid decisions was shown soon after his return to Oxford (he had taken a first at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art), when he was given a hard-hat tour of the Ashmolean redevelopment by its Director, Christopher Brown. From the top floor, Stanley spotted a distant tower and asked what it was. Told it was the James Wyatt-designed 18th century Radcliffe Observatory, he said spontaneously, "I have a project for this building." It was the unforgettable Susan Philipsz's sound piece, "You are not alone", which can be seen on YouTube.

Stanley came from the industrial town of Widnes in Cheshire, where his father was a construction manager and his mother worked as an administrator in a local college. The middle child between an older and a much younger sister, Michael was a lithe, handsome golden boy who excelled academically and was head boy at Ss Fisher and Moore high school. In an interview in the Oxford Mail in 2010 he said he grew up in a small terraced house; his early experience of art came because "I was brought up in a strong Roman Catholic family, so seeing art in churches was inevitable, though in most services I'd be distracted and draw a detail of the Station of the Cross or something on the back of the hymn sheet."

It was on a school trip to Tuscany when he was 14 that, he recalled, "I had my first sight of the 15th century artist, Piero della Francesca's incredible painting of the Resurrection in Borgo San Sepolcro. Soon after, in a tiny chapel on a hillside in Arrezo, I saw his pregnant Madonna. They were such powerful experiences, as vital now as at the time they were made."

Instead of spending his Saturday afternoons on the rugby league terraces, as was normal in Widnes, Stanley used them to make, he said, "the journey between two great northern cities, Liverpool and Manchester," to go to Tate Liverpool or the Walker Art Gallery. At Tate Liverpool he had his first encounter with contemporary art at an exhibition of the great German guru, Joseph Beuys: "The sight of basalt rocks scattered over the floor of the gallery evoked an immediate response – strong, primitive and yet magical," Stanley said. "Beuys was using materials not usually regarded as art materials to symbolically transcend everyday realities and to build his own mythology."

He went to the Ruskin aged only 17. He had real artistic talent, as is shown by the anatomical drawings he did there. He worked in many media, including Super 8 film, as well as lead, bronze and recycled materials, and his degree show was highly acclaimed. At the end of his first year he met and fell in love with Carrie Robson, an art student at Leeds, whom he wooed with wonderful gifts, such as hand-crafted and hand–sewn boxes of chocolates and a conker cast in bronze.

They were both passionate about DH Lawrence, the musician PJ Harvey and Victoriana, and they married in 1998, Carrie in a vintage lace dress and Michael in a 1930s suit, and wrote their own vows. Despite his dazzling rise in the art world, and the many house-moves it entailed, he found plenty of time for their three much-adored young children, and for village activities, including tending two allotments and keeping chickens.

Starting as Curator of Art at Compton Verney, Stanley was Senior Curator of the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. As director of Milton Keynes Gallery he was responsible for two Turner Prize-nominated shows, by Phil Collins (2005) and Cathy Wilkes (2008), as well as for exhibitions by Marcel Broodthaers, Roger Hions, Gilberto Zorio and James Lee Byars. At Oxford he presided over the creation of a new gallery space and opened up MAO's café to the street, as well as initiating joint ventures with other cultural institutions, such as the Ashmolean and the Old Power Station.

Michael Stanley's enthusiasm was infectious; he was full of energy and lovable. But his verve and vivacity had its drawbacks – he was found dead in a garden in Oxford; the police are not treating his death as suspicious – and this has grieved not only his family and Modern Art Oxford, but also his friends, his village, the city of Oxford and the whole of the art world.

Michael Edward Thomas Stanley, curator and gallery director: born Widnes 23 July 1975; married 1998 Carrie Robson (three children); died Oxford 21 September 2012.

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