Director General – Sir John Leighton

Sir John Leighton

SIR JOHN LEIGHTON, Director General of the National Galleries of Scotland, discuss his new book, ‘100 Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland’, and the challenges facing many art institutions in economically trying times.

“This is my selection of a hundred highlights from the collection of the Scottish National Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. There are over a hundred thousand objects in the collections of the National Galleries, so to try and give a sense of the quality and breadth and depth of the collection, and the surprises that you come across, in just a hundred works was something of a challenge. This must be the first time in about twenty years that we’ve produced a publication that aims to cover the full scope of the collection.”

‘100 Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland’ is available in hardback (£35) and paperback (£24.95).
‘100 Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland’ is available in hardback (£35) and paperback (£24.95).

“We’re at a very interesting moment, when the National Galleries is, I think, one of the greatest success stories of culture in Scotland in the last few decades. In our last financial year we came tantalisingly close to two million visitors, which in financial terms is a really sizeable number. It doesn’t quite match the seven million that would go to the Tate or the British Museum or the National Gallery, but within the context of the size of Scotland, I would imagine it would compare favourably with places like the Art Institute of Chicago or many very well known museums and galleries across Europe. We’re not in the league of the Louvre or the Metropolitan, but it’s still a very impressive number.”

“We are a very ambitious organisation with these amazing collections and great galleries and an eager audience with high expectations. We have a busy programme. We lend our collections all over the world. We’ve got an exhibition, Masterpieces from the National Galleries, in San Francisco before it moves to Texas. We also lend all over the country. The Artists Rooms programme that we operate with the Tate has had 35 million visitors in the last six years. That’s an extraordinary number, and every one of those visitors is coming into contact with works from the Scottish national collection.”

“The strategy discussions we have with our trustees, management team and staff are about ‘How does one maintain ambition and quality and reach broader audiences in a very volatile economical context, when traditional forms of support are changing’? We are a publicly funded organisation, but there’s huge competition for public funds and private and corporate support. So we have the same set of issues facing so many different kinds of organisations in the culture and heritage world. What do the years ahead look like and how do we use the achievements of the past as a platform of success in a very uncertain environment?”

“We have to think about changing business models and patterns of working. I think it’s important in an organisation like a museum or gallery, which are inter-generational, that we think in the long term – not just our audience now, but audiences not as yet on board – and how do you ensure that an organisation like this will thrive in the future when it’s not terribly clear what’s going to happen next month or the month after that?”

“The public expects the same standard from us as they’d expect from London or Paris or New York. Of course, we don’t necessarily have the same means to be able to supply that. So that’s an interesting ongoing challenge, an ongoing challenge. A lot of what I do is geared towards trying to encourage and nurture the artistic ambition, while finding the business means to marry those two things together.”

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