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Balshaw at the Tate: Is There a Doctor in the House?

Dennis Skinner once quipped loudly across the Commons to a faltering Cecil Parkinson at the Despatch Box, ‘It’s the in-breeding that does it!’ I was reminded of this amusing sneer when Doctor Maria Balshaw was announced as Nicholas Serota’s replacement as director of the Tate Museum, an elevation met with the customary uncritical lauding with which a fawning Fourth Estate now greets all State Art appointments.

Balshaw comes with all the genetic defects of the State Art clone. She’s boyishly “enthusiastic”, has “energy and excitement”, does daily yoga and charity triathlons and has even won a ‘Personality of the Year’ award. She has mounted “exhibitions of international significance” i.e. of the usual suspects. She has taught ‘art theory’, albeit at a pretend university. She is also adept at “campaigning” and beyond reproach at self-congratulation and the exaggeration of what she understands as her achievements. And she knows the State Art Political Correctness scriptures, all sixteen volumes, by rote and quotes fluently from them at every opportunity.

In charge since 2006, she has wrecked the Whitworth Art Gallery with an unnecessary and ugly extension. She claims she transformed it into “a triumph on the international stage”, “a truly state of the art space”. I think this latter means it’s double the size whilst giving the impression there’s hardly anything to look at. She filled it with over-exhibited conceptual art of no discernible distinction. And if her vandalistic hanging of the historic watercolour collection is anything to go by she has neither feeling nor understanding for the display of traditional and historical work – a frightening omen.

On the other hand she is extremely good at spreading thin material even more thinly, and is, therefore, tailor-made to lead the Switch House whose purpose would appear to be precisely that. For outside the café windows she commissioned a metal tree from Anya Gallaccio, Ms Freeze. It might look like demolition-site scrap but it is of “international significance” because she says so. She also commissioned Marina Abramovic, Sarah Lucas and Cornelia Parker – and what imaginative programming that was. How brave to venture down paths so rarely trod. She’s incapable of thinking with originality beyond a list of two dozen familiar brands, so the dealers who rely on the Tate for ‘co-operation’ may sleep easy. Incidentally, her feeble additions to the Whitworth collection will, in the future, embarrass even her.

She left the City Art Gallery more or less alone (she was placed in charge there as well in 2011), though pictures have inexplicably disappeared. I’ve not seen Tim Clifford’s expensive ‘Duccio’ for ages. Where is it? She’s also susceptible to puerile stabs at populism: placing Banksy’s infantile agitprop alongside Etty’s brilliant soft-porn masterpiece of Ulysses and The Sirens shows, for example, an unerring gift for the fatuous juxtaposition.

Naturally, with her grounding in State Art, conflicts of interests are water off a duck’s back: since 2014 she has served on the Arts Council … which funds the Whitworth.

She is now in charge of the national collection of British art and the scholarship of its history, or what’s left of it at the Tate. Don’t be thrown by the ‘Doctor’ tag, her contribution to scholarship is nil. It’s a frightening thought that the supremacy of State Art has brought us from the academic peaks of Professor Bowness to this in under a generation. Needless to say she writes eighty-proof drivel.

With those like Balshaw who’ll do and say anything to get on, you see them in their true colours when, like the snake-oil salesmen they are, they try to convince you to disbelieve your eyes. But the expensive haircut, the pushy clothes, the bouncy arm-flapping, these cut no ice at such moments. It was Balshaw Manchester can thank for spending £400,000 on the silliest of stunts. This was Ryan Gander’s ‘sculpture’ described as “a world masterpiece”, and is another of her “internationally significant” accomplishments. It’s not just that it’s a tawdry piece of trash, that much is obvious, but that she was prepared to lie so brazenly about its importance. Like Serota, then, she will be prepared to deceive for the cause. Her appointment is a disaster.

David Lee is the publisher and editor of The Jackdaw arts magazine. 

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