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:
June 20, 2018
Bill Hackwell
Unprecedented Cruelty Against Immigrants and Their Children
Paul Atwood
“What? You Think We’re So Innocent?”
Nicola Perugini
The Palestinian Tipping Point
K.J. Noh
Destiny and Daring: South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s Impossible Journey Towards Peace
Gary Leupp
Jeff Sessions and St. Paul’s Clear and Wise Commands
M. G. Piety
On Speaking Small Truths to Power
Dave Lindorff
Some Straight Talk for Younger People on Social Security (and Medicare too)
George Wuerthner
The Public Value of Forests as Carbon Reserves
CJ Hopkins
Confession of a Putin-Nazi Denialist
David Schultz
Less Than Fundamental:  the Myth of Voting Rights in America
Rohullah Naderi
The West’s Over-Publicized Development Achievements in Afghanistan 
Dan Bacher
California Lacks Real Marine Protection as Offshore Drilling Expands in State Waters
Lori Hanson – Miguel Gomez
The Students of Nicaragua’s April Uprising
Russell Mokhiber
Are Corporations Are Behind Frivolous Lawsuits Against Corporations?
Michael Welton
Infusing Civil Society With Hope for a Better World
June 19, 2018
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
We Can Thank Top Union Officials for Trump
Lawrence Davidson
The Republican Party Falls Apart, the Democrats Get Stuck
Sheldon Richman
Trump, North Korea, and Iran
Richard Rubenstein
Trump the (Shakespearean) Fool: a New Look at the Dynamics of Trumpism
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Protect Immigrant Rights; End the Crises That Drive Migration
Gary Leupp
Norway: Just Withdraw From NATO
Kristine Mattis
Nerd Culture, Adultolescence, and the Abdication of Social Priorities
Mike Garrity
The Forest Service Should Not be Above the Law
Colin Todhunter
Pro-GMO Activism And Smears Masquerade As Journalism: From Seralini To Jairam Ramesh, Aruna Rodrigues Puts The Record Straight
Doug Rawlings
Does the Burns/Novick Vietnam Documentary Deserve an Emmy?
Kenneth Surin
2018 Electioneering in Appalachian Virginia
Nino Pagliccia
Chrystia Freeland Fails to See the Emerging Multipolar World
John Forte
Stuart Hall and Us
June 18, 2018
Paul Street
Denuclearize the United States? An Unthinkable Thought
John Pilger
Bring Julian Assange Home
Conn Hallinan
The Spanish Labyrinth
Patrick Cockburn
Attacking Hodeidah is a Deliberate Act of Cruelty by the Trump Administration
Gary Leupp
Trump Gives Bibi Whatever He Wants
Thomas Knapp
Child Abductions: A Conversation It’s Hard to Believe We’re Even Having
Robert Fisk
I Spoke to Palestinians Who Still Hold the Keys to Homes They Fled Decades Ago – Many are Still Determined to Return
Steve Early
Requiem for a Steelworker: Mon Valley Memories of Oil Can Eddie
Jim Scheff
Protect Our National Forests From an Increase in Logging
Adam Parsons
Reclaiming the UN’s Radical Vision of Global Economic Justice
Dean Baker
Manufacturing Production Falls in May and No One Notices
Laura Flanders
Bottom-Up Wins in Virginia’s Primaries
Binoy Kampmark
The Anguish for Lost Buildings: Embers and Death at the Victoria Park Hotel
Weekend Edition
June 15, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Dan Kovalik
The US & Nicaragua: a Case Study in Historical Amnesia & Blindness
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Yellow Journalism and the New Cold War
Charles Pierson
The Day the US Became an Empire
Jonathan Cook
How the Corporate Media Enslave Us to a World of Illusions