Life after the Warburg: Charles Saumarez Smith

Writer, curator, art historian and former Warburg Institute student Charles Saumarez Smith has had an interesting and influential career in the arts. Beginning his career first as an Assistant Keeper and then Head of Research at the V&A, he has been Director at both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery as well as Secretary and Chief Executive at the Royal Academy. He is currently Professor of Architectural History at the Royal Academy of Arts, chairman of The Royal Drawing School and The Watercolour World, a trustee of the Garden Museum, and an Emeritus Trustee of ArtUK and Charleston.

In this blog post, we caught up with Charles to find out more about some of the highlights as well as challenges of his career, his time studying at the Warburg Institute and to discover more about his new book The Art Museum in Modern Times.  

During your career, you have been Director at both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, followed by Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy. Could you tell us about some of the highlights or proudest achievements in your career?

My time at the National Portrait Gallery was dominated by the planning and building of the Ondaatje Wing, designed by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones and opened in 2000, which I remain very proud of, although it is in the process of being re-adapted by Jamie Fobert. At the National Gallery, I was preoccupied by acquisitions, of which Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks was by far the most complicated. And at the Royal Academy, I was again preoccupied by a big building project, the opening of the new building in Burlington Gardens, which took my entire eleven years to plan, design and fund, opening in May 2018 just before I left.

The new Wohl Entrance Hall at Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy. Photo: Rory Mulvey
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced during your career?

The big change during my time was how much more time had to be devoted to finance and fund-raising. When I went to the National Portrait Gallery, there was no finance committee, audit committee, or development committee and I met with the curators on a weekly basis to discuss possible acquisitions, buying a vast amount with an annual budget of £310,000. During my time at the Royal Academy, we had to raise £55 million for the new building, while, at the same time, it became much harder to raise money because of new ethical concerns, which are totally understandable, but inhibit good relations with potential donors because of anxieties about the source of their wealth.

Times are particularly trying at the moment for the arts. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing the sector in general now?

I am relieved not to have the responsibility of steering any big arts institution through the period post-COVID. It is always so much harder to cut staff than to expand. The issue which I think hasn’t been discussed as much as it should is what happens to the generation in their twenties, so many of whom have been shed if they are on short contracts, and older staff, whose roles have been cut and who may now be unemployable. I suspect it is a much bigger human tragedy than anyone is prepared to acknowledge.

Are there ways we can mitigate these challenges?

I get the sense that the government’s furlough scheme has disguised many of the immediate problems, but the moment that comes to an end, many arts institutions are planning to, and will have to, cut staff quite dramatically. Institutions are often unwilling to dip into their reserves, but this will need to be considered  I have been impressed by how some small-scale institutions have responded at such speed: the Royal Drawing School, which I now chair, put much of its teaching online within a fortnight of lockdown; Charleston Trust was energetic in the speed of its response to potential catastrophe; Christopher Woodward, the Director of the Garden Museum, swam from Newlyn to Tresco to raise money. I am full of admiration for such creative and independent thinking, which is what is most needed.

Currently, you have a book about to come out, The Art Museum in Modern Times. What are your favourite museums in the UK and how important is the role they play in our continued understanding of culture and history?

Like many people, I love the smaller museums as much as the big national museums. I have put a short chapter into the book about the Christ Church Picture Gallery, which was one of my early experiences of an art gallery when it first opened in 1968 (my parents lived outside Oxford). I have also included the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich which has played a big part in my life, partly because of its Museum Leadership Programme, which I was closely involved with. I still love the National Portrait Gallery and believe that it plays an important place in introducing people to British history, as it did me. Nearly my last chapter is on the new building at the Royal Academy, which tried to give the Academy some of the resources of a museum as well as a kunsthalle ­– a public lecture theatre and space to show its own collection, so that it is seen as being part of the history of British art as well as an institution of contemporary art teaching and practice.

The book has a strong architectural theme and the Warburg is currently undergoing its own architectural transformation, the Warburg Renaissance. What are the new possibilities that this project will open up for the Institute?

I have followed the plans for the Warburg with the utmost interest. Much of what is happening is very similar to what has been done in museums: opening it up to wider and more casual public use through having a café and larger public lecture theatre, as well as having space to show off its archive and do exhibitions as it did so brilliantly in the 1930s and during the Second World War. I am a huge admirer of what Haworth Tompkins did in terms of refurbishing the London Library, modernising it, but keeping its essential atmosphere, and expect them to do the same at the Warburg.

The London Library © Haworth Tompkins
What is the most valuable thing you have learnt during your career?

That life is not predictable and it’s not necessarily sensible or desirable to plan a consistent career path. When I was leaving the Warburg, I applied for jobs at both the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery and it was just chance that the interview at the V&A came first. I didn’t exactly plan or expect to be Director of the National Portrait Gallery. I moved to the Royal Academy because I wasn’t particularly enjoying being Director of the National Gallery even though for many people it should have been a dream job. Also, never be casual about job interviews. You can be caught out.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

One of the best pieces of advice I received was from Joe Trapp who was Director of the Warburg when I was a postgraduate student – a very nice man, who was extremely friendly and supportive. He told me always to make a note of the date of everything when you are taking notes. Ever since I have always noted things down things in date order and I think it is a very useful historical discipline. It was how I wrote a book about the Royal Academy because I realised that the sequence of events day-by-day gave one a much better narrative view of what happened during its Foundation.

What do you think makes the Warburg Institute so unique?

The obvious answer is the Library. I remember meeting Ellis Waterhouse just before going to the Warburg and he said it would do me no harm to spend a year in the stacks, which was true. But I was much more influenced by the staff than the library, most of all by Michael Baxandall, who supervised my PhD., who I hugely admired and still do. Also, the essential seriousness of intellectual investigation and to go where instinct takes one, which he inspired without it ever being stated.

Former Warburg Institute Director, Joe Trapp
Former Warburg Institute Lecturer, Michael Baxandall
What did you study during your time at the Warburg Institute?

I started doing the MPhil. in Combined Historical Studies, but quickly realised that I didn’t have the temperament for another two years of course work having already spent a postgraduate year doing courses at Harvard. So, I switched to doing a PhD. under Michael Baxandall, which was originally going to be about general issues of architectural aesthetics (it had an incredibly pretentious title), but turned into a case study of Castle Howard, which had a hard time as a PhD. thesis, but turned into a book of which I am still proud.

What did you enjoy most about studying at the Warburg?

I look back on the amount of intellectual freedom I had with amazement. I spent an incredible amount of time reading round my subject in the British Library and London Library with a sense of freedom which the Warburg gave. It would never now be allowed.

Do you have any particular favourite memories during your time studying at the Warburg?

Every Friday, I worked in the Photographic Collection as a way of earning a small amount of pocket money.  I would sometimes be allowed to attend lunch with an amazing group of people – Jennifer Montagu, who arrived just in time for lunch, Elizabeth McGrath, Enriqueta Frankfort, Ruth Rubinstein and Heidi Heimann, who was the quietest, but I now realise one of the most remarkable. I wish I hadn’t been so scared of them!

How did your experience at the Warburg Institute help to equip you for your career?

Being at the Warburg taught me a lot about intellectual resilience and self-discipline. I spent fourteen years working on the history of Castle Howard which was longer than it took to build it. It was a disadvantage when I was at the National Gallery not having been to the Courtauld, but otherwise, I have, I think, benefitted from being as much a cultural historian as an art historian in the way I interpret the world, and not just as a historian.

Would you recommend the Warburg Institute as a place of study and why?

The library is an amazing place. So is the Warburg’s tradition. It stands as somewhere where you can cross disciplinary boundaries, investigate ideas and how they have influenced action as part of a powerful intellectual tradition.

What advice would you give to graduating students?

There is more to life than academic life.  Academic life can be narrow and there are other ways of using what you have learned.

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The Art Museum in Modern Times by Charles Saumarez Smith, and published by Thames & Hudson, is out on 25 March 2020 and is available to pre-order on Waterstones or Amazon. A compelling examination of the art museum, this sweeping book explores how the architecture, vision, funding, and public role of art museums across the world have been transformed – and considers their future in a new era of pandemic and uncertainty.