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. 

More articles by:
March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am a Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography