Sir Norman Reid: Tate director who made the gallery into a museum of the first rank

Norman Robert Reid, arts administrator and painter: born Edinburgh 27 December 1915; staff, Tate Gallery 1946-79, Deputy Director 1954-64, Director 1964-79; Kt 1970; married 1941 Jean Bertram (died 2007; one son, one daughter); died London 17 December 2007

Norman Reid, director of the Tate Gallery from 1964 to 1979, was one of those civil servants whose devotion to public duty was accompanied by a private passion of which his colleagues were scarcely aware. In his case, though, the passion was close to the Tate's own concerns. Reid was a painter. He was the only director of the Tate to have been a genuinely practising artist; and he left Millbank every day with his own painting in mind, which he practised at his home in Beckenham and at the weekends in Kent.

Reid did not much show his work to friends and would not exhibit until some years after his retirement from public life. When he did so, he contrived to make the occasions so modest that they seemed almost furtive. In front of the pictures he constantly criticised his own work for the wrong reasons. "I never broke new ground." Many of his friends were distressed when he said such things. The flower pieces, family portraits and Kentish landscapes were so obviously good in their own right.

Perhaps Reid was the more self-effacing because he dealt with major artists as part of his duties at the Tate. Yet here was part of his professional success. He could talk to the masters of contemporary art as one artist to another. This is a reason why, for instance, Tate Modern now has its magnificent room of paintings by Mark Rothko. Reid secured the paintings for the nation by the use of many diplomatic skills. But the real key to the gift was that he had spent many hours talking freely about art in Rothko's studio.

Norman Reid was born in Edinburgh in 1915 and educated at Wilson's Grammar School and Edinburgh College of Art, where he studied in the years before the Second World War. To the end of his life his pictures had a Scottish flavour. Some landscapes are reminiscent of William Gillies, who taught him and was one of his treasured artists, but Reid characteristically denied that there could be any connection between them. None the less he was delighted when anyone associated him with the modern Scottish school. In 1941 he married a fellow student, Jean Bertram. From 1939 to 1946 Reid served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. By the end of the war he held the rank of Major.

Like so many ex-servicemen artists, Reid was disinclined to take instruction from senior but non-combatant teachers. He did not return to his truncated Edinburgh studies, but sought employment in the museum world. A whiff of the army remained with him in his professional life. Other artists, if he thought them sincere, awoke his geniality. But he could also call people to attention and give orders. Reid was short in stature and usually busily engaged when one saw him. Critics of his directorship sometimes thought that they were dealing with a bureaucrat. They mistook their man. He had a great deal of natural authority and his occasional rebukes could be severe.

Reid is widely held to have been the best of the Tate's directors. Certainly he made the gallery into an international museum of the first rank. He joined its staff in 1946 and was at first concerned with the establishment of a conservation department. This was during the comparatively uneventful directorship of Sir John Rothenstein. Reid became a deputy keeper in 1948 and from that time studied the opportunities to make the gallery's collections better known.

He was responsible for the foundation of the Friends of the Tate in 1958 and also set up the American Friends of the Tate. It was natural that he was eager to pursue the possibility of extending the gallery's premises. For 10 years before he himself became director in 1964, he was Rothenstein's deputy director, a unique vantage point from which to assess the needs of this complicated national museum.

The favourites to succeed Rothenstein were Bryan Robertson, who had a brilliant record as an organiser of exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery, and Lawrence Gowing, then principal of the Chelsea School of Art. Reid was in comparison little known. In retrospect, his appointment as director shows the wisdom of the then trustees.

They placed their confidence in a man who thoroughly understood the workings of a museum that faced many difficulties. It was dilapidated, underfunded, had no coherent acquisitions policy, was inexpert in mounting temporary exhibitions and had little idea how to proceed with new buildings. Furthermore, the Tate had and of course still has two purposes as a museum. It comprises both the nation's collection of historic British art and also of modern art from all countries.

Reid's career was henceforward bound up with finding solutions to all these problems. The director of a great museum need not be, and probably ought not to be, a curator of temporary exhibitions. For some years before the opening of the Hayward Gallery in 1968, the Tate continued to house travelling shows devised by the Arts Council. Reid's strategic interests were elsewhere. First he acknowledged the split in the Tate's collections by creating keepers of Historic British Painting and of Modern Art. Ronald Alley became keeper of the modern side and in 1965 Reid asked his former rival Lawrence Gowing to become keeper of British art.

Between them they completely rearranged the galleries, giving special attention to Turner, whose glories had never before been made so apparent. Gowing, by nature and training a Euston Roader, now became an enthusiast for modern art, mostly as a result of his work on the Tate's international exhibition "54-64: Painting and Sculpture of a Decade". The conditions of the 1960s art scene were in place. Reid's modesty and diplomacy united his staff and the Tate became much more alert to the new art of the day.

During the happy period of the mid-1960s Reid was concerned to augment the Tate's collections. Much art of the modern period was only vaguely represented. Abstract painting and sculpture was hardly to be seen. Some of the new acquisitions were lucky. Roland Penrose was despatched, with an absurdly small sum at his disposal, to buy the 1925 Three Dancers from Picasso. The genius was amused, and allowed the Tate to have the picture. Alley gave a celebrated lecture in which he demonstrated that the painting was at the heart both of Picasso's then unknown private collection and his oeuvre as a whole.

Other works came to the Tate as a result of long negotiations by Reid. The Rothko gift was particularly troublesome. His paintings arrived at the Tate on the day in 1970 that the artist killed himself, to Reid's deep sorrow.

Future students of the Tate and its acquisitions will note that Reid (and of course his trustees) gained works by Stubbs, Gainsborough and Wilson, on the British side, together with an impressive array of paintings and sculpture by artists who had not interested the gallery's previous administration. These included Mondrian, Brancusi, Malevich, Braque, Leger, Duchamp-Villon, Ernst, Dali, de Chirico and Grosz.

To these modern old masters, none of whom were personally known to Reid, we should add gifts to the Tate by living artists who were his friends. Those include (besides Rothko) Gabo, Hepworth, Moore and Nicholson. They did not give Reid single works. From each of them he elicited whole groups of their most significant production.

It was generally acknowledged that Reid and his trustees brought many treasures to Millbank. But the government grant was not adequate, especially toward the end of Reid's directorship. By that time, the prices of first-rate modern paintings had risen to levels previously held only by the old masters. The Friends of the Tate Gallery, Reid's creation of the 1950s, helped to find funds.

There was much goodwill from artists, collectors and dealers. Yet the system of trustee-purchasing, by which all works likely to enter the Tate were examined by the trustees at their own meetings, was a cumbersome way of responding to the art market. Modern paintings on sale in London were bought by American museums within days. It could take two months before they were even considered by the Tate.

Relatively cheap works in the late 1960s led to Reid's most testing times with his curators and the public. By this time the Tate had further expanded its staff and Reid's team included alert young curators who regularly visited artists' studios and were especially taken with new developments that did not fit the traditional categories of painting and sculpture.

Reid himself had only a moderate admiration for such art. He none the less listened to the enthusiasts from his museums: perhaps not as respectfully as they wished, but with the result that the Tate now bought works by Jan Dibbets, Douglas Huebler, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman and Klaus Rinke; and by the British artists Keith Arnatt, Michael Craig-Martin, Gilbert and George, Richard Long, Bruce McLean and David Tremlett.

Such purchases were given separate attention in the Tate's Biennial Report of 1972-74, which included "A Note on Conceptual Art" by Richard Morphet, Assistant Keeper of the Modern Collection. It was there explained that the Tate now possessed "video, sound cassettes, colour slides, photographs, maps, texts, diagrams and lines drawn directly on the gallery walls . . ." The change in media, the note went on, "involving modes of presentation that are sometimes less large, colourful or environmentally attractive than art in established styles" none the less had the merits of all art. "Acts, facts, people, objects, situations, all are opened by 'conceptual' art to a creative scrutiny that revitalises art and enriches life."

These attitudes might not have been noticed had not one journalist, scanning the report, queried a purchase from the American sculptor Carl Andre of a piece (at that point untitled: it is now known as Equivalent VIII) consisting only of ready-made bricks. The matter was taken up by every newspaper in Britain and the reaction was uniformly hostile. Reid stood behind his curators and defended the purchase. When a disapproving editorial appeared in the Burlington Magazine, Reid immediately resigned from its board, while also ensuring that Morphet contributed a long and persuasive discussion of Equivalent VIII to that conservative journal.

The "bricks" scandal was not the controversy of a day or two. It haunted the rest of Reid's directorship and to this day is a reason why the Tate became a less highly regarded institution than it deserved to be. Nothing could be learned from the dispute, except that modern acquisitions are always likely to displease one section or another of the interested public. A further controversy caused Reid much distress. In 1979 he was personally criticised on the matter of the Tate's attitude to recent British figurative painting. His opponent was the prominent expatriate but British-born artist David Hockney.

Reid had once assisted Hockney when the artist had been detained at Heathrow airport customs and lost his homosexual magazines purchased in New York. The two men did not thereby become friends. In 1979, annoyed that the Tate had not purchased work from his latest exhibition, Hockney used a page in The Observer to accuse Reid of a bias in favour of abstract art. Reid (who himself had never painted an abstract picture in his life) replied in mild terms that indeed he had loved the work of abstract artists that had become part of the national collection.

It was pointed out that the Tate had acquired figurative work by Bacon, Freud, Kitaj and Coldstream, among others. Hockney was unappeased. Reid wrote that he was glad that he had announced his retirement before Hockney's attack "or it might have been thought that David Hockney's whiff of grapeshot had finally done the trick".

Reid's many innovations at the Tate include its Education Department, the Print Department and a sympathetic press office. The constant theme of his directorship was expansion. We owe him the north-west extension of the Tate Gallery (in what is now Tate Britain), opened as he retired in 1979. The Clore Gallery housing the Turner Bequest was also initiated by Reid.

Another theme of his reign was accessibility. Reid was foremost among museum directors on opposing admission charges. He was genuinely welcoming to the quite novel art world of the 1960s. I remember his lunch parties in the director's office. They would include prominent artists, Anthony Caro or John Hoyland; often an artist's widow, for Reid was cannily attentive to such people; someone from the Royal Academy or a visiting dignitary from the United States; a novelist or a couple of art students he had recently met; and perhaps such a belligerent young critic from Studio International as the present writer.

In general we were merrier than our host. As the time neared half past two, precisely, he would begin looking at his watch like a referee at the end of a match. "Thank you for coming, everybody. Now I must work." And off we obediently went.

Tim Hilton

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