In 2016, the directors of some of the major British art institutions stepped down. Julia Peyton-Jones left Serpentine Galleries, Martin Roth left the Victoria and Albert Museum and Nicholas Serota will leave Tate in 2017. In this extensive interview, Martin Roth, looks back on his five year period at the V&A.
Quite often directors are the ambassador for their museum and attend a lot of receptions and dinners around the world. Interviewing them can become quite difficult as they start to talk like politicians and give diplomatic answers. Not Roth. He speaks his mind, gives direct answers and is not PC.
In this interview he candidly discusses his tough start at the V&A; why the job of a director is much more than a curator at large; why the directorship of a museum by a business man or woman is the wrong move; his battle for programming the Alexander McQueen show at the V&A; his practical ignorance of the British Class system, and the controversial no photography and sketching policy at the V&A temporary exhibitions.
Let’s start at the beginning. How where you approached for the position of director of the V&A?
I receive many emails from headhunters asking me for advice. They approach me for tips on candidates for the roles at companies they are recruiting for. One head-hunter called me when I was in a meeting and I asked her to call me back the next day. I had a hunch she was recruiting for the V&A. I came up with two British and an American candidate. She called me and I gave her my three names, but she said the V&A wanted to talk to me. I answered, “that is a misunderstanding, I’m German”. She insisted that they wanted to talk to me. I thought it was interesting that a British National Museum wanted to hire a German to run their institution, so I agreed to meet them with them. I had a first private meeting with a few trustees and I enjoyed the discussions. It was followed by two official interviews. At the second one I had to leave early as I had to go to a press conference in Beijing directly the next day. The chairman, Paul Ruddock, was – let’s say a bit unusual – and he asked me some very aggressive questions. At the end I thanked him for inviting me and I told him I completely understand that you can’t hire a German for this job, but it was really a privilege to be invited and to meet you. The next day the chairman called me and he said: “Martin guess what; we just hired you, you are our man”.
What brief did the chairman give you?
My challenge was to make a successful institution even more successful. To make it more internationally rooted with an appealing international programme and to open it for the entire society – a museum for everyone. What I didn’t know is that part of the senior management was incompetent and the work environment was really horrific. Some people hated each other and didn’t talk to each other. People didn’t say hello to me. There used to be a nice Italian coffee shop on the other side of the V&A. The owner is from Naples and every morning I came in for an espresso Salvatore said, “Martin buongiorno” and for five minutes I had a warm feeling before I crossed Cromwell Road to march into my battlefield.
It was a really toxic work environment and I knew I had to change it completely to take the V&A into the twenty-first century. One day, I had some colleagues over from Paris. They asked me about an object and I didn’t know anything about it. I asked a gallery assistant if he could help me. He was very friendly and he explained everything about the piece to my colleagues and disappeared immediately. When my friends left, I thanked the assistant, “you really saved me there, I looked like an idiot”. Another Polish gallery assistant who happened to be present in the room asked me with a hint of hesitation in her voice, “Sir, am I allowed to talk to you?” I didn’t understand what she meant and I replied “Sure, you can talk to me.” And she said “I just want to say thank you”. I said “what for?” She replied you were the first director talking to us since 1996.
Did you talk with the board of trustees and the chairman that the management wasn’t doing a good job?
I did, but the problem was that the chairman who was there for a very long-time, hired most of these people. So he couldn’t accept that they were not functioning.
What did you do?
I was lucky to hire a very loyal interim Chief Operating Officer (COO) who was very tough and knew how to play the senior management’s mean games. People started to leave. When we hired Tim Reeve, as COO and my deputy director, we started to implement some radical changes. What I didn’t see at all, which in hindsight I consider to be an advantage, is that I had a theoretical knowledge of the English class system but not a practical one – I ignored it completely. I don’t think I could have implemented those changes if I would be British.
So, in the end it helped you were a stranger.
Yes, indeed. During my handover, I asked my predecessor, Mark Jones, who has very aristocratic manners to give me some advice. He gave me a recommendation to fire someone – which was a good advice – but I said “Mark, this is not your final advice, is it?” And he said: “Don’t try to be British.” That was a super good advice: ignore everything related to the class system and it helped me.
How involved are you in the exhibition making?
I always liked to take ideas from the team and try to combine them with other ideas from the academic world, or sometimes with my own ideas. In the end you have to make the team believe that it is their ideas. It would be wrong if they feel they are executing the ideas of the director or the senior management.
I believe a museum director has to be involved in the programme. You can’t work on a programme that is invented or delivered by somebody else. You have to go for it, fight for it and sometimes you publicly have to defend it. You have to be an academic sales person. You can’t sell something when you are not convinced yourself.
A director is like a chef in a major restaurant; you can’t hire a lot of people to do the menu for you. You have to be involved in the menu yourself.A museum director can’t work on a programme that is invented or delivered by somebody else.
So you have co-written all the menus?
I have been involved in all of them, but I try to keep a bit of distance, as I don’t want to be controlling to my staff.
How do you work with your staff?
Well, let’s say I hire you as a Dutch journalist with an expertise in canal systems. I have no knowledge about canal systems but I know that it is highly attractive. I offer you a platform and give you a certain amount of money and time. If you need more money or time please tell me early. If you need less money or less time tell me early as well because I need it for something else. But the platform is totally yours. You can do whatever you want and I support you as long as you are loyal, convincing and it is not completely crazy what you are doing.
It would be ridiculous to control you because I hire you as you have more knowledge about canal systems than I do. That is the way I work. We have experts for different fields, but once in while I ask to be informed and discuss the progress of the exhibitions. I will never tell somebody you have to do it this way, it is more like a debate. I am a fan of non-hierarchical debates, an old-fashioned fan of the German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas.
As a museum director do you need to have a curatorial background in order to direct a museum successfully?
I don’t think you need a curatorial background per se, but you need to have a comprehension of exhibition making and much more important you have to be an expert in a certain field. It doesn’t have to be an exhibition you generated yourself, but if you have not been involved in a handful of exhibitions, several research programs, publications. Also, I was a founding member of the team of the German Historical Museum in Berlin and much more.
A director of a museum needs to have experience as a curator, but there is much more. You have to have entrepreneurial skills, you have to be a media-savvy, you have to be trained somehow in foreign policy. You need an understanding of fundraising and be a fundraiser yourself. The job of is much more than a curator at large.
I think the job of a curator is totally overvalued. It’s very in-fashion. I recall when I had my very first job as a curator my friends and fellow students at university told me; “Martin, are you crazy? This is the most dusty, awful, old-fashioned job you can imagine.” But today, everybody wants to be a curator. Everybody wants to be a Hans-Ulrich Obrist, but fortunately there is already one.Martin Roth: The German [museum] system today is still very old-fashioned and not entrepreneurial at all.
Could you talk about your first period as a director?
When I first became director of the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden, I definitely had no clue about business and management. I had an academic background. I was, though, very passionate, very engaged, open to learn fast and up for a fight with the government about money. Also, I was willing to do a lot of fundraising, which gave me the freedom to do the exhibitions I wanted to do and not be dependent on the government. We’re talking about the early nineties and we raised a lot of money – it was fairly easy. When the government understood that we raised a lot of money they asked me to return the money they provided to the museum. 20 Years later I am still shocked that they told me, “Sie haben einen illegalen doppelhaushalt”. (You keep an illegal double housekeeping). In the UK it is widely accepted for museums to get financial support by the government and to operate in an entrepreneurial way. In Germany it was frowned upon. The German system today is still very old-fashioned and not entrepreneurial at all.
In our upcoming post Martin Roth will discuss: why the directorship of a museum by a business man or woman is the wrong move; his battle for programming the Alexander McQueen show at the V&A, and the controversial no photography and sketching policy at the V&A temporary exhibitions. 6th of February online
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers.
V&A Installation Images: Hollywood Costume (2012), You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 (2016), Disobedient Objects (2016), Courtesy V&A Museum.