The biggest problem confronting the next director of the National Gallery of Australia will be in meeting the expectation that anyone would have to be an improvement over the departing Dr Kennedy. Not all of Kennedy’s difficulties have been of his own divising. Some have become intrinsic to a director’s job anywhere in the world. Others are peculiar to Canberra.

Some of the common problems were spelt out by the then Director of the National Gallery in London, Neil McGregor, during a seminar at Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery early in 2001. McGregor recognised that he had to preside over three distinct kinds of organisation: security, scholarship and selling. First he headed a police force in the gallery guards. Secondly, the curators were the equivalent of a university department. Senior staff needed years to prepare exhibitions and catalogues. That expertise underlay purchasing decisions. Others conducted educational programs from pre-schoolers to post-graduates. Thirdly, the Gallery contained a merchandising branch and some of the largest catering establishments in the city.

The key to McGregor’s success was to recognise these differences and then to accept that he could never master all of them. He would have none of the prevailing doctrine that managers can manage anything and everything, irrespective of the substance. Excellence in management required expertise in the subject being managed. In each area, McGregor had the counsel of trustees who included a retired general, a professor and a magnate.

All the trustees put the independence of the institution above their careers or outside allegiances. The Conservative appointees stood up to the Tories and the Labourites stared down Blair. 

This is the point where the demands on directors anywhere intersect with the oddities in Canberra. The new appointee will need board members who will stand up to the government on behalf of the Gallery. The first hurdle here is to find cabinet ministers who will not dish out seats on boards of cultural institutions as rewards for party hacks. The second hurdle is to appoint trustees who will use their connections to insulate the Gallery from partisan and commercial influences. Those habits of mind are one British political tradition that Australians have not inherited.

Nor have we taken over the unitary system of administration, but contrived a Federation with residual powers in the provinces. Kennedy took a while to appreciate that the State and regional galleries were not his branch offices. He was quicker to develop an appreciation of Australian art than the arcana of Federal-State relationships.

That slow learning was compounded because of the party politicisation of the National Gallery since Whitlam put ‘Blue Poles’ onto his Christmas Card. Far from advancing the Gallery’s interests, that gesture ensured that the Fraser government in 1977 would block the purchase of a pivotal work for Cubism, Braque’s “Grand Nu”. Thirty years later, public, media and government expectations about the Gallery’s next director will be shaped by the frenzy that depicted the Pollock purchase as the emblem of Whitlamite extravagance, an arrogance revived by Keating.

The current dumbing down of the Parliament House collection is a reminder that the media’s test of the new director will be the “look” of the first multi-million dollar acquisition. Another third-rate portrait or altar-piece will escape the censure it deserves aesthetically whereas a masterpiece by an Italian Futurist will trigger beat-ups from the parents of five-year olds who could do better.

As a result, the true measure of any major purchase will be ignored. How does it fit into the Gallery’s tiny collection of mostly minor European canvases, its modest representation of modern art since the 1940s, or its strengths in prints and Asian fabrics. Should the Director even attempt to fill these gaps from a world art market where five million dollars will secure a standing spot at the rear of the auction houses? 

The new director will also have to grin and bear the notion that the Gallery was built to attract tourists to Canberra. Every National Gallery bears responsibilities in education, research and conservation that are effective because their results are slow. Not all of its achievements can be calculated by the lowest common denominator of the highest turnstile numbers.

Sponsorship is rarely half-way disinterested. Corporations want the biggest bang for their bucks and zero controversy for fear that their sales will suffer. McGregor learned that a gallery had to go it alone to mount a show in which it believed. Corporate marketing managers refused to sponsor a Christian art show which drew huge crowds and attracted Londoners who had never ventured in before, such as West Indian. 

Although there will always space for the occasional crash-through purchase or blockbuster, the newcomer will have to bring an approach which puts an end to the comparisons that further diminished Kennedy.