Vitriol Ambition

It's one of the world's great museums. But the V&A is in crisis again - and the hunt is on for a new director. Stephen Bayley is one of the candidates. Here, in what he calls 'a professional suicide note', he offers an insider's account of what's gone wrong
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The V&A is in a mess, but then it so often is. That overblown, pompous Edwardian façade disguises a fragmented, demoralised institution, whose purpose is as confused as its collections are magnificent, and whose future looks as grim as its past was distinguished. In the darkest days of the First World War, the French intellectual Paul Claudel said: "Gentlemen, in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well enjoy a glass of champagne." Veuve-Clicquot, anyone ?

The V&A is in a mess, but then it so often is. That overblown, pompous Edwardian façade disguises a fragmented, demoralised institution, whose purpose is as confused as its collections are magnificent, and whose future looks as grim as its past was distinguished. In the darkest days of the First World War, the French intellectual Paul Claudel said: "Gentlemen, in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well enjoy a glass of champagne." Veuve-Clicquot, anyone ?

There's a rumpus - largely synthetic - going on about a new exhibition that juxtaposes plastic wine racks with medieval reliquaries. The perpetrator, Ron Arad, a designer of goofy genius, certainly deserves his place in the V&A. His affront on all known conventions is welcome and refreshing, but while zero-tact may be one of Arad's defining features, it makes the museum authorities look inept. The problem is not with Arad's work, but the way in which the V&A has handled it. Arad needed curating.

It's a reflection of the museum's insecure grip on design and the media that this happened, and it's added topicality to the very public hunt for a new director. We'll come to the shortlist later but - if past experience is anything to go by - it's clear the first thing any new appointee should do is fight his way to the Arad wine rack and quaff a glass of fizz from a poisoned chalice.

Previous directors have been an odd bunch. After the Second World War, it was Leigh Ashton, an orientalist who was, curiously, the first moderniser. It was Ashton who created the Primary Galleries (thus breaking up ancient curatorial fiefdoms), and Ashton, too, who put on the 1946 Britain Can Make It exhibition that was the starting point for the 1951 Festival of Britain. One of his problems seems to have been drink, although he also made what at the time was known - winkingly - as a "late marriage". Queen Mary said of this arrangement, "Don't let it spoil your work". It didn't, but the booze did.

Ashton was "retired" and John Pope-Hennessy, a Renaissance scholar and an acidulous snob, was the obvious successor - although conservative voices thought this appointment so soon after Ashton might make the Museum look like a gay cabal. Instead Trenchard Cox, author of Jehan Foucquet, native of Tours (1931), an art historian from Birmingham, was lured south. A small, twinkling, charming man - apparently overwhelmed by the enormity of the V&A - he was memorably described by Pope-Hennessy as a "failed homosexual". Almost nothing happened in his directorship.

Then it was Pope-Hennessy's own turn. The Pope, as he was known with a mixture of derisive respect and fearful loathing, was from the mandarin class. He was a superb scholar who hugely enjoyed sucking up to rich Americans. According to the critic Brian Sewell, he was also "a greedy homosexual" who eventually found his professional, and perhaps personal, destiny in New York. The Pope was an appalling person to deal with. Nigel Nicholson said of him (in The Spectator magazine in November 1994): "I was awestruck that a man could rise to the top of his profession by being so consistently disagreeable." John Pope-Hennessy was the last director of the V&A who could get by on personal credentials and intellectual intimidation. The roof leaked in his day, but no one dared ask him to fix it.

Although he has his critics - including Pope-Hennessy himself, who described his tenure as "a 13-year regime that reduced the museum and its staff to a level from which it will not recover for many years" - Roy Strong's period at the V&A was the most successful in recent times. A brilliant, flamboyant - if brittle - man, Strong had the energy, nerve and style to take the Museum centre-stage of public life. He irritated politicians, annoyed advisory councils and trustees, but he understood the media and he did perfect the blockbuster exhibition: shows about The Destruction of the Country House and The Garden were huge successes that redefined their subjects. Strong created The Friends of the V&A, and also brought new money into the old Museum, from South-east Asia and - most notably - from Terence Conran, on whose behalf I created The Boilerhouse Project in the museum's basement. The Boilerhouse - typical of the Strong years in its mixture of style, generosity and opportunism - popularised design and was London's most successful gallery of the Eighties, whose own attendances sometimes exceeded the V&A as a whole. This may have been what Pope-Hennessy meant.

Strong left after painful tussles with a newly empowered board of trustees. His successor was defined in the negative: they had said get me anyone who isn't Roy Strong, so they got Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, an academic librarian who was prepared to do as she was told. Up to a point. The Pope accused her of "brainless vulgarity". Her own successor is the present incumbent, Alan Borg, a reserved and dignified man of conservative demeanour who, to everyone's astonishment, has pursued the bizarrely fantastic project of having architect Daniel (Jewish Museum) Libeskind design a fragmented structure of astonishing novelty (and heroic impracticality) now known as The Spiral. It would be marvellous if The Spiral were built, but funding is a problem and realisation seems unlikely. This has been prematurely interpreted as a failure for Borg - and the trustees have crassly and maladroitly advertised his post as vacant about two years before he is scheduled to leave it. So here we have another V&A crisis.

The V&A has an effect on people because it is so much more than a mere museum: much, much more than the sum of all its wonderful parts. Alan Borg, for instance, went through his previous post at the Imperial War Museum like the Wehrmacht on manoeuvres, slashing and burning and modernising, but the gravity of South Kensington seems to have slowed him down. The V&A is an institution even more than it is a collection, one that can trace its origins right back to The Great Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations of 1851. But because of its complicated inheritance from Victorian bureaucracy, it has always needed reform. It can't, for instance, collect cars because in the 19th-century taxonomy that informs the whole culture, no one can decide whether a car is Metalwork or Sculpture. The burden of running this place is immense, and the chaotic recent history suggests that it may be genuinely unmanageable. That vast cultural inheritance weighs very heavily indeed. Worse, the V&A undermines a central belief of our culture: that proximity to great works of art has a civilising effect. If the evidence of the V&A staff is anything to go by, it has not. Back-biting is rife and a nerveless, crabby malaise hangs over most of its departments.

But the V&A has two extraordinary strengths. First it has campaigning traditions: essentially, the museum was established by Prince Albert's briefcase carrier, the over-busy Henry Cole, to teach industry and the public about design. That inscription above the doorway, written long before the Bauhaus, says: "The perfection of every art lies in the complete fulfilment of its function." Second is its material wealth: quite simply, the Victoria & Albert Museum has the greatest collection of applied art anywhere in the world. Nothing in New York, Washington, St Petersburg, Paris, Berlin or Rome even begins to compare. The new director is going to have to sort it all out: decide what it all actually means. Raise funds? Break it up? Stop collecting? Start campaigning? Build the Spiral? Order champagne?

No one is absolutely sure, but the leading candidates are thought to be Timothy Clifford, Simon Thurley and Charles Saumarez-Smith. Clifford is a bluff, pin-striped museum pro who makes a splash wherever he goes. Sometimes too big a splash. He is very competent indeed, but tends to make enemies. Thurley is the youngish director of the Museum of London, where he has brightened things up no end. He fizzes with energy and ability. Saumarez-Smith is the favourite: he is very well-liked and has done a superb job on the National Portrait Gallery. His critics say he is a little unworldly, though his smooth passage through the treacherous waters of the museum world suggest an adroit politician exists behind the amiable front.

Each has the brains and the ambition. But do they have the necessary mystery ingredient? Roy Strong, now speaking out for the first time in 14 years, told me this week: "It's make or break for the Museum. The V&A needs someone with vision, someone who can see the way ahead. It needs someone with taste."

The decision on the next Director will be made by the Trustees, probably nudged along by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The convention of trustees is a valuable one, and essential because a board of distinguished and disinterested individuals under a strong chairman gives authority to the director while protecting him from external interference.

Alas, the V&A has nothing of the sort. The trustees include cheesy placemen doing politicians' bidding while the chairman has no relevant experience and the wording of the job advertisement was a travesty - in all essentials requiring the new director to do what the trustees say. That's not the idea at all.

Or, at least, not mine. What they need is that vision thing. So I didn't bother applying. Instead, I decided to write this, a professional suicide note. But the headhunters are on to me. I may be seeing them next week. So what should I say to them? The greatest director the V&A never had? I'm not so sure. Whatever happens, the champagne is on me.