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Maria Balshaw appointed as Tate Director, but what does that mean for us?

NEWS: Maria Balshaw appointed as Tate Director, but what does that mean for us?

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

One of the few headline breakers last week, pushing its way through the Trump and Trident front pages was the appointment of Maria Balshaw as the next director of Tate. It’s one of the biggest appointments in global art, and it’s been twenty-nine years since Nicholas Serota last made these headlines.

Under Serota, Tate Liverpool grew immensely in popularity, and had several successful upheavals. His main achievements at Tate were the creation of Tate Modern, now one of the most respected galleries in the world, and of Tate St Ives, which before Serota wasn’t even a faint thought. Even Tate Britain had to be redefined under his strict vision, which sought to present clear conversations between the many clashing art worlds.

So established now are the titles Serota gave these galleries, that it’s hard to recall a time when Tate Modern and Tate Britain shared one remit, one name, and one building.

So with that in mind, knowing that her predecessor has changed the face of international art, what can be expected of Maria Balshaw? Well her history might give some indication.

The soon-to-be Tate Director grew up in the midlands, but has made her biggest impact in Manchester at the helm of The Whitworth, where she has transformed the cultural face of the city and without doubt, contributed to their current position as the UKs fastest growing city. The Whitworth, under Balshaw, has completely reinvented itself, and the heart of Manchester.

She understands the power of culture in the North of England. We can probably expect some pretty seismic changes to how Tate works here in Liverpool.

Not only that, her focus on sharing collections from the Whitworth during her time there had an incredible impact on cultural engagement across the UK, not just in her galleries. So perhaps there is scope to expect further sharing from Tate now it is under her control.

Various articles leading up to her appointment speculated on other candidates, but they all showed too many links to the commercial arts, or too few to contemporary philosophies.

Maria Balshaw was the only candidate that ticked every box, and poured more potential on top, but various speculative articles made assumptions that Tate were out for someone to fill a Serota shaped void. Now confirmed, Balshaw, hopefully, will do much more than fill a hole, or carry on to a brief.

Below is a rough comparison of where the two new directors were at their starting point for Tate, and while you have to take the growth in popularity and shifts in funding etc. etc. etc. into account to appreciate the differences, and similarities, it serves as fairly evident that Balshaw goes in to the role with a more impressive CV than her predecessor did.

Nicholas Serota Maria Balshaw

·         Read Economics, followed by History of Art at Cambridge

·         MA , focusing on Turner, from the Courtauld Institute




·         BA (Hons) English Literature & Cultural Studies at University of Liverpool (1991)

·         MA Critical Theory &

·         DPhil in African American Visual and Literary Culture from University of Sussex (1996)

Time in academia:

Became Chairman of Young Friends of the Tate (1969)

·         Arranged lectures & classes for local children

·         Applied for Arts Council grants, which caught attention of Tate trustees, and had the YFT shut down

Time in academia:

·         Lecturer in Cultural Studies at University College Northampton (1993)

·         Research Fellow & Lecturer in Visual Culture at University of Birmingham (1997)



Education Partnerships:

·         Became director of Creative Partnerships in Birmingham (2002)

–          Focus on bringing arts organisations into partnership with schools

·         Selected as inaugural fellow for the Clore Leadership programme (2004)

–          Cross disciplinary leadership scheme

–          Now visible learning spaces in over 50 museums and galleries nationwide, leading gallery education practice.


Time at Arts Council:

–          Joined Arts Council of Great Britain as a regional exhibitions officer (1970)

Time at Arts Council:

·         Joined Arts Council England  as Director of External Relations and Development, West Midlands (2005)


–          Appointed Director of Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, (1973)

–          Appointed Director of Whitechapel Gallery, London (1976)

–          Formed a team of future world cultural leaders (Jenni Lomax, Mark Francis, Sheena Wagstaff)

–          Showed early work by Carl Andrea, Eva Hesse, Anthony Gormley, etc.

–          Boldy shut down the gallery for 1 year, raised funds with public auction, reopened a much contemporised Whitechapel Gallery. (1985-7)


·         Appointed director of Whitworth (2006)

–          Her key achievements were notable exhibitions & putting the Whitworth at the forefront of leading new contemporary ideas.

–          It is probably too soon to say whether her time here has produce internationally significant artist careers.

–          Her Captial building project though, saw the Whitworth closed for 1 year and reopened to allow for a contemporary revival… [mirror Serota much here?]

Regional Development:

·         Appointed director of Manchester City Galleries (2011) alongside her role at the Whitworth

–          Her dual role allowed for a sharing of collections, and a new allied vision for the cultural reputation of Manchester.

·         Appointed Director of Culture, Manchester City Council, alongside her role at the Whitworth & Manchester City Galleries

–          Furthering the dual role in Manchester galleries, she was able to partner her vision for the galleries and the city’s cultural aims

–          The Factory, which is yet to have work started, will be her legacy in Manchester, beyond anything else. A cultural centre built for purpose to create a new venue for culture to be as significant in Manchester as it is in London – costing £110m. It will be the biggest UK arts development since Tate Modern.

Appointed Director of Tate (1988):

·         With a proposal called ‘grasping the nettle’ (famously over just two sides of A4 paper) basically pointing out that “The Tate is loved, but not sufficiently respected.” And a series of bold statements that outlined how he hoped to change that.

·         Over his 29 year reign, his key achievement is undoubtedly Tate Modern, which is now the most well attended contemporary art space in the world.

Appointed Director of Tate (2017):

–          Her achievements have yet to be seen

–          Her plans have yet to be announced





So I don’t believe that there is so much a Serota shaped void to fill at Tate, but a Balshaw shaped void to fill in the North West. Her work in Manchester has had inevitable knock on effects on Liverpool’s creative industries, and will no doubt continue to, as Liverpool strives to make the most of The Factory as that develops on our doorstep.

The example should be taken up by our galleries and museums too, working together much more closely, through existing networks, and by the creation of new ones.

It’s all speculation so far, as very little is known of her plans, and it will take some time for anything to be concrete, even once she takes up her role in June there will be a great deal of expectation on her shoulders as to just what she can deliver to maintain the UK’s position as a global cultural leader.

Liverpool Biennial Launch, photo by Tony Knox
Liverpool Biennial Launch: Fransesco Manacorda speaking at Tate Liverpool, photo by Tony Knox

Andrea Nixon, Executive Director & Francesco Manacorda Artistic Director of Tate Liverpool said: “We’re delighted Maria has been appointed Director of Tate. We are great admirers of the work she has done and very much look forward to working with her in the near future.”

Since St Ives, opening in 1993 (a project founded before Serota), very little has changed to define Tate’s presences outside London. Tate was redefined as Tate Britain, Tate Modern was born. But Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives were launched on the principles of bringing great art to the rest of the country. Now that needs to change. Tate Liverpool has a golden opportunity to cease being the ‘Tate of the North’, and gain its own voice.

Under Maria Balshaw that looks more possible than ever, and under the focussed leadership of Tate Liverpool’s directors should have every chance to do that, with incredible exhibitions, and UK firsts already planned for this year, including Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933, which opens at Tate Liverpool in June.

Tate 1988 © Tate Liverpool
Tate 1988 © Tate Liverpool