At a spe­cial evening hosted by HT Brunch, the first ever woman di­rec­tor of Tate Mu­se­ums, Maria Balshaw, makes a case to broaden its au­di­ence and ap­peal

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - News - [AN EX­CLU­SIVE IN­TER­VIEW] Text by Sid­dharth Dhan­vant Shanghvi Pho­tos by Naina Redhu

A t the tail end of a din­ner for Maria Balshaw, the new whizz di­rec­tor of the Tate, artist Su­bodh Gupta pipes up from the seat to my right: “You’ve opened up the Tate to every­one – you’ve given ac­cess back to the peo­ple. This is an ex­tra­or­di­nary gift to democra­tise art.”

And then Gupta com­mits ex­actly the kind of faux pas I would, one that en­dears him to me for life: “You em­bar­rass us all.”

“Per­haps, Su­bodh, you mean ‘em­brace’?” Gupta’s part­ner Bharti Kher – one of my favourite artists – chimes from the head of the ta­ble.

Balshaw, ra­zor-sharp on up­take, says, “Gosh, yes, of course, I do both equally.”

Balshaw’s hus­band, Nick Merriman, di­rec­tor, Manch­ester Mu­seum, smiles at me. It is im­pos­si­ble


in­spired by key works at the Tate and Manch­ester Mu­seum, in­clud­ing one in­spired by Cezanne’s wife re­clin­ing and won­der­ing when she would leave Eng­land for France).

For a north Goa vil­lage hick, what put me at ease in Le Cirque’s glam­orous cli­mate was Balshaw, to be im­mune to Balshaw’s mighty charm and scim­i­tar in­tel­li­gence, and how the com­bi­na­tion sets her apart at any din­ner ta­ble. mid­dle class British stock with no un­nec­es­sary al­lu­sions to art. As ini­ti­a­tion into a life­long ap­pren­tice­ship to art prac­tice, she cred­its lit­er­a­ture.

“For most of my child­hood books were my refuge and in­spi­ra­tion,” she told me. “I read ev­ery­thing I could lay my hands on and had some won­der­ful aunts who passed me things that opened new vis­tas for me. I still re­mem­ber re­ceiv­ing The Color Pur­ple and Me

rid­ian by Alice Walker for Christ­mas at age 13, and curl­ing up and im­mers­ing my­self in Celie’s story and her voice and not mov­ing from the arm­chair for most of the day. Vir­ginia Woolf’s To the Light­house guided me into mod­ernism, Ur­sula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Dark­ness and Mar­garet At­wood’s The Hand­maid’s Tale were my fem­i­nist Balshaw is in Delhi for an art fair. Along with my friends Dat­taraj and Dipti Sal­gao­car, I hosted Nick and her at sup­per for HT Brunch. Some dear friends who joined us at The Leela Palace in­cluded Kavita and Hari Bhar­tia, Namita and Arun Saraf. Over the years, Balshaw and Merriman have been Goa drink­ing bud­dies, where it’s mostly chat­ting art, pol­i­tics, books et al in board shorts over cold beer and prawn curry. Nat­u­rally, I was in­tim­i­dated to be at din­ner at The Leela Palace’s Le Cirque (the mixol­o­gist had cre­ated as­ton­ish­ing cock­tails

“Pi­casso’s Weep­ing Woman on the cover of Sartre’s The Age Of Rea­son led me to Lon­don...” —Maria Balshaw

who has the notable gift of be­ing nat­u­rally self-ef­fac­ing and in full own­er­ship of her ge­nius. Per­haps it comes from her child­hood – sound,

awak­en­ings. And the world of lit­er­a­ture then made me want to get on a train and go to find art and artists. So, Pi­casso’s

Weep­ing Woman on the cover of a Pen­guin copy of Sartre’s The Age of Rea­son led to a jour­ney to Lon­don seek­ing out mod­ernist art. This jour­ney led me to Tate Bri­tain (then called just Tate as it was the only one) and to a sense that I re­ally wanted to dis­cover things I didn’t know (and I still like to do this).”

In ad­di­tion to serv­ing as a dis­ci­ple of cu­rios­ity, if Balshaw sounds dread­fully sen­si­ble then, well, she is. And it’s pre­cisely this poise, can­dour and wit that Balshaw will high beam at the Tate, an in­sti­tu­tion that will re­vive un­der the new di­rec­tor’s ex­pan­sive schol­ar­ship, gen­der in­clu­sive pol­i­tics, and her pro­found, in­ti­mate friend­ships with rock star artists as for­mi­da­ble as Ma­rina Abramovic and Cor­nelia Parker.

Mostly, it’s what Gupta wisely ob­served: she’s com­mit­ted to democratis­ing art, play­fully call­ing out its pre­ten­tions, and re­mind­ing younger au­di­ences that even one’s In­sta­gram feed, con­sid­ered care­fully, may be a tableau of artis­tic nour­ish­ment.


I first met Balshaw a few years ago; she was di­rec­tor of the The Whit­worth, Manch­ester. Af­ter at­tend­ing a pho­tog­ra­phy ex­hi­bi­tion I’d cu­rated at Su­na­paranta, an arts foun­da­tion I head in Goa, which was set up by the Sal­gao­cars, we had din­ner at my cot­tage. She asked me if I’d cu­rate a show for her. I thought of Sooni Tara­porevala, who is feted for her pho­tographs of the Parsees but also had, as gal­lerist De­vika Daulet-Singh alerted me, a de­fin­i­tive ar­chive of Mumbai/Bom­bay pho­tographs span­ning 40 years. Dur­ing our col­lab­o­ra­tive ad­ven­ture, Tara­porevala and I were daz­zled by the ease of work­ing with Balshaw and her team at The Whit­worth.

Balshaw is ut­terly pro­fes­sional, en­tirely non-in­ter­fer­ing, and a prodigy of mind­ful del­e­ga­tion. Her great­est strength? She cham­pi­ons her artists with an­i­mated gusto. Un­like many in sim­i­lar po­si­tions, who come with the in­dus­trial strength ar­ro­gance of an in­flu­encer, Balshaw is dis­arm­ingly fan­girl be­fore her artists. The weight of her re­cent des­ig­na­tion is such that she ar­rived in Delhi only to dis­cover a lunch re­cep­tion for 300, where she had been billed guest of hon­our. Her en­tirely ex­tem­po­ra­ne­ous speech at this lunch was wav­ing can­dles for at­tend­ing artists she ad­mired: Su­bodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Nalini Malani (she sep­a­rately pointed out In­dian artists she is watch­ing care­fully, in­clud­ing Ji­tish Kal­lat, Reena Kal­lat, Gauri Gill, Raqs Me­dia Col­lec­tive). What might have been an op­por­tu­nity for her to speak about her own role at the Tate turned into a thought­ful re­minder of its pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity: to nour­ish and ad­vo­cate artists.

And then there’s also that qui­etly thought­ful way she winds up a project. To cel­e­brate Tara­porevala’s rap­tur­ously re­ceived show at The Whit­worth, she treated me to din­ner at Ma­hesh Lunch Home, when Nick and she were pass­ing through Mumbai. We walked from my flat to the restau­rant, and over rice and fish curry, we spoke about our par­ents, how we as­pire to age, the Mar­quezian soli­tude of age­ing. I had, around that time, lost my fa­ther; we touched on the role of art in help­ing us process loss.

“We strug­gle as hu­mans to ac­cept loss, as I think we de­lude our­selves that we can or should be com­plete in our­selves,” she later ob­served. “So the process of en­gag­ing with an artist’s work is a timely re­minder that we can­not stop time, or be per­fect and that more takes place be­yond or out­side us, and I find this humbling and also in­spir­ing.”


The Tate drew 8.5 mil­lion vis­i­tors last year. Balshaw must al­lo­cate £110 mil­lion of funds across its venues, man­age a per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of over 70,000 art­works, and lead close to a thou­sand em­ploy­ees. In­ter­na­tion­ally, art has re­vived economies in nearly bank­rupt towns such as Spain’s Bil­bao, where the Guggen­heim Mu­seum at­tracted mil­lions of vis­i­tors to its whim­si­cal and lav­ish Frank Gehry ed­i­fice (in its ini­tial three years the mu­seum gen­er­ated nearly $500 mil­lion and an­other $100 mil­lion in city taxes). A 2014 McKin­sey study pointed out that what makes a city great, in ad­di­tion to green spa­ces and im­mi­grants, is a thriv­ing cul­tural sec­tor.

Sadly, a thriv­ing cul­tural cen­tre is vastly lack­ing in our coun­try. In In­dia, pub­lic mu­se­ums are dis­mal – run ei­ther by gov­ern­ment ser­vants with no vi­sion, train­ing or pas­sion, or by age­ing so­cialites who use pub­lic art spa­ces to dig­nify their oth­er­wise point­less ex­is­tence. There are few pri­vate mu­se­ums, with key ex­cep­tions such as the Ki­ran Nadar Mu­seum of Art (where the ex­cel­lent Roobina Kar­ode di­rects its en­er­getic pro­gramme). In Amer­ica and China, the mega rich cre­ate and sup­port art cen­tres. Our newly wealthy, in­stead of fund­ing world class mu­se­ums – for the sheer van­ity, if for no al­tru­is­tic mo­tive – build two bil­lion dol­lar homes that be­come odes to crass greed and aes­thetic fail­ure. In the process of head­ing an arts foun­da­tion in Goa, I find my­self strug­gling to keep my own bull­shit sen­sor in check – it’s so easy to fall into the art world rhetoric of free cham­pagne and in­scrutable lan­guage. So how does Balshaw cope?

“I ac­knowl­edge the gilded world and the sys­tems of con­trol and priv­i­lege, but my pub­lic-sec­tor ca­reer has al­ways been and will con­tinue to be about how we can make art and artists’ ideas ac­ces­si­ble to a wider pub­lic. And there is noth­ing bet­ter to re­mind one of the power and rel­e­vance of art than to lis­ten to what vis­i­tors say, think and feel when they come into Tate,” she said. “To give one pow­er­ful ex­am­ple, when we pre­sented Queer British Art at Tate Bri­tain, which ex­plored the un­til re­cently hid­den his­to­ries of queer de­sire and life in our na­tional col­lec­tion, one vis­i­tor com­ment at the end sim­ply said, ‘I think it might be safe to come out now’.”

“When we pre­sented Queer British Art at Tate, one vis­i­tor com­ment sim­ply said, ‘I think it might be safe to come out now!’” —Maria Balshaw

LEAD­ING LADY Maria Balshaw, Di­rec­tor, Tate Mu­se­ums and Art Gal­leries

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