National Gallery looks to Holland for new director but could an Englishman in New York win out?

Exclusive: Three Dutchmen and a Brit are in the frame for top job

Nick Clark
Monday 15 December 2014 20:03
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The National Gallery was founded in 1824. The directorship is a hugely prestigious job but brings bureaucratic pitfalls unlike many other cultural institutions (Getty)
The National Gallery was founded in 1824. The directorship is a hugely prestigious job but brings bureaucratic pitfalls unlike many other cultural institutions (Getty)

Three leading Dutch gallery bosses and the British curator who masterminded the National Gallery’s blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci exhibition have been shortlisted in the race to become the UK gallery’s new director, The Independent can reveal.

Luke Syson, who is currently in charge of European sculpture and decorative arts at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is among the frontrunners to replace outgoing National Gallery director Nicholas Penny.

The gallery is also looking to the Netherlands in its search, with three senior figures from Dutch institutions believed to be on the five-strong shortlist.

They include Axel Rüger, the German-born director of the Van Gogh Museum since 2006. He joined the museum from the National, where he was a curator of Dutch painting.

Another is Dutch-American Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis, the museum in the Hague which recently underwent a successful overhaul and whose collection includes Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. Dr Gordenker has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Frick Collection and has been a senior curator at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

Taco Dibbits, director of collections at the Rijksmuseum, another institution hailed for a successful reopening recently, is the third candidate based in the Netherlands.

The shortlist is believed to be rounded out by Gabriele Finaldi, the deputy director of the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, which he joined in 2002 after a decade as a curator at the National.

The trustees, who are in charge of running the process, called in recruitment agency Odgers Berndtson to find the successor to Dr Penny over the summer. The ultimate appointment will be approved by the Prime Minister.

A spokeswoman for the National declined to comment on the identity of any of the candidates. It had hoped to have a new director selected before Christmas, but the process is said to be ongoing.

Luke Syson is currently in charge of European sculpture and decorative arts at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mr Syson, who is British, was curator of pre-16th century Italian painting and head of research at the National before leaving to join the Met in January 2012.

A senior art industry source said the curator was well qualified to take the top job at his former institution, although other candidates on the shortlist also had a strong chance.

The source said: “The National Gallery is looking for star power and Luke would certainly bring them that. They didn’t want to lose him when he went to New York.”

His exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan”, was the most successful show in the National’s history, with members of the public queuing overnight to see it.

Beyond Mr Syson, a senior source who had seen the shortlist said the majority of the names were “connected with the Netherlands”.

The UK gallery is a hugely prestigious job but brings bureaucratic pitfalls unlike many other cultural institutions, with some likening it to working in the civil service. “It is an amazing job,” one senior art industry executive said. “But it is not one to be undertaken lightly.”

Dr Penny, 64, announced in the summer that he was to step down from the job to spend “more time with my family, friends and books”.

Runners and riders

Taco Dibbits

He joined the Rijksmuseum in 2002 from Christie’s auction house in London, and has been director of collections for the past six years.

Gabriele Finaldi

Finaldi was made curator of Italian and Spanish painting at the National Gallery in 1992 where he remained for a decade, before joining the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid

Emilie Gordenker

The former senior curator of Netherlandish, Dutch and Flemish Art at the Scottish National Gallery was appointed director of the Mauritshuis, in the Hague, in 2008.

Axel Rüger

He joined the National Gallery in 1999 as curator of Dutch paintings and was appointed the director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2006.

Luke Syson

Syson curated the National’s most successful ever show on Leonardo da Vinci and moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, in 2012

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