Life after the Warburg: Alison Cole
Former Warburg Institute student Alison Cole has had an exciting and varied career in the arts; from being Executive Director for some of the UK’s leading cultural organisations, including The Art Fund, Southbank Centre and Arts Council England, to her current position as Editor of The Art Newspaper. Alongside this she is also an established author and journalist, writing books on art history (her latest book on Michelangelo was published by the Royal Academy in March 2017), editing art journals, drafting policy, reviewing exhibitions and writing reviews and features for well-known publications such as The Independent and The Arts Desk.
We caught up with Alison to talk to her about the highlights of her career, her memories of studying at the Warburg and to get her advice for graduating students.
Could you talk us through what a ‘day in the life’ as the Editor of The Art Newspaper looks like?
No two days are the same at The Art Newspaper, and the articles and newspapers we produce are always the result of brilliant teamwork and hard graft. In the morning we produce our daily online newsletter, with at least three breaking news stories a day – often our exclusives. My Deputy Editor will be busy commissioning these over breakfast, and with a big art or heritage story, like the recent Notre Dame fire, it will be all hands to the deck (late evening and waking hours). At the same time, we commission investigative reports and analysis from some of our 30 reporters around the world; these are destined for our monthly newspaper or for our focused supplements: today we have just finalised our supplement for the Venice Biennale, together with our big May edition.
Sometimes we travel to cover news or produce our Fair Dailies (e.g. Hong Kong and Miami), and we contribute articles on our own specialist subjects. At the same time, we are having continuous executive discussions on topics such as editorial and design direction, brand, and digital and print strategies. Life is certainly not dull.
What’s been your favourite project that you’ve worked on so far at The Art Newspaper?
My particular favourite has been working on the developing Leonardo Salvator Mundi story – with all its incredible twists and turns. I really enjoy receiving tip-offs from experts, scholars and art market insiders, having lively discussions, and following up leads with my key reporters. As a “Renaissance” person, I have also reported on a couple of major Salvator Mundi developments, which have helped to slowly unravel some of the key theories surrounding provenance. In terms of investigating questions of authenticity, I enjoyed my visit to Florence to see the new “Leonardo” sculpture in the context of the current Verrocchio exhibition, and my discussions with Carmen Bambach while there.
As well as The Art Newspaper you’ve worked at a number of brilliant art organisations, do you have any particular career highlights / proudest achievements you could tell us about?
My proudest achievement is undoubtedly spearheading the 4-year advocacy campaign that led to all the UK’s national museums going free. I worked closely with the media, museum directors, politicians, finance directors, the charity tax reform group and some key art world figures, and it finally boiled down to a change to the VAT regime (through a proposal drawn up by myself and a colleague at The Art Fund, and presented to the Treasury). This enabled all national museums to drop their charges. It has been fantastic to see the knock-on effects of that campaign; how museums have flourished in the intervening years, both in terms of visitor numbers and vibrancy.
What is the most valuable thing you have learnt during your career?
Not to rush to judgement.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
Treat people as your equals.
What did you study during your time at the Warburg Institute?
Like all Warburgians, I learned how to be a Renaissance “man” – or “woman”!; I did the M.Phil course over two years; my thesis was on Quattrocento Landscape depiction.
Do you have any particular favourite memories during your time studying at the Warburg?
My favourite memory is of my personal tutor Michael Baxandall, sympathising with my difficulty in working in the Warburg spaces, instead of at home; the particular shade of green in which many Warburg rooms were painted, he believed, provoked melancholy. I think he was on to something…
Did your experience at the Warburg Institute help to equip you for your career?
I think it gave me an enduring intellectual curiosity and breadth of reference. But there was no career guidance as such. And it taught me to always ask questions and to look for the answers in unexpected places… but not necessarily to trust the places you ended up in.
“I think it gave me an enduring intellectual curiosity and breadth of reference.”
What did you enjoy most about studying at the Warburg?
The wonderful eccentricity of the programme and the individualistic approach of the tutors – plus some of the brilliant minds that I encountered while there. And, of course, the library, with all its serendipity. I have very fond memories, too, of working with Jennifer Montagu and Ruth Rubinstein in the picture library – they were both so kind, and I just about tolerated Jennifer’s cigars!
Would you recommend the Warburg Institute as a place of study and why?
Yes, absolutely – it is a wonderful place to ingest the best of middle European culture and intellectual thought, and to make surprising connections. I am looking forward to the new café, too!
What advice would you give to graduating students?
Believe in yourself, get out and about, and don’t be afraid to be taken out of your comfort zone.
Any future plans/projects?
I’d like to keep learning, write some more books, and complete my Botticelli project, which has been too long on the back burner.
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The Art Newspaper is the journal of record for the visual arts world, covering international news and events.