Maria Balshaw: Tate’s northern powerhouse set for the challenge

Published in The Observer on July 2, 2017

The new Tate director, Maria Balshaw, can pinpoint the explosive moment that started her journey to the job: visiting a blown-up shed. In 1991, a Cornelia Parker installation, Cold Dark Matter, saw the artist hang pieces of a detonated garden shed from the ceiling.

“It was absolutely the most exciting thing I’d ever seen,” she recalled. Twenty-four years later, she re-opened the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester with the work forming a cornerstone of a new Parker exhibition. But it is owned by the Tate, of course.

Balshaw took over the top job – overseeing all four Tate galleries – last month, replacing Sir Nicholas Serota. After 29 years in the job, he’s credited with not only turning Tate into one of the world’s most successful art brands, but also for radically changing the British public’s relationship with culture, ushering in an unexpected (and at times tempestuous) love affair with contemporary art.

But while Balshaw may not be looking to blast the place apart – why would she since it does too much too well to reasonably crave that – the 47-year-old is nonetheless already shaking things up.

Her appointment breaks new ground in and of itself: she’s the first female director in Tate’s 120-year history, and has cheerfully described herself as a “feisty northern woman”. She was certainly seen as dynamite in her previous role: appointed in 2006, Balshaw revitalised the Whitworth – fundraising for a £15m, hugely successful redevelopment, as well as parlaying that job into a dual role – she also ran the more traditional Manchester Art Gallery from 2011.

At the same time, she was director of culture for Manchester city council, helping persuade then chancellor George Osborne to fund a new arts venue, The Factory, to the tune of £78m. Balshaw has been a northern powerhouse in her own right.

But that indefatigable ambition is delivered with a cheerfully no-nonsense attitude that has made her a popular figure in Manchester and the arts world. Where Serota had a reputation for a certain cool steeliness, Balshaw is known for her warmth and energy. Parker has described her as “very dynamic, charismatic and persuasive… She’s very enthusiastic. She’s very inclusive.”

Balshaw has said that she looks forward “to developing Tate’s reputation as the most artistically adventurous and culturally inclusive gallery in the world”. Still, inclusivity was surely also key to Serota’s revitalising of Tate over the past three decades: the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 helped make visiting galleries a mainstream activity, with the hugely popular Turbine Hall installations becoming a beacon for how Brits embraced the institution. It now receives 5.8 million visitors a year, with Tate Britain attracting 1.1 million.

Balshaw thinks they need to go further; art, in Britain, is not yet for everyone. “We can afford more ambitious targets,” she told the Financial Times. Those in her sights? Young people. Non-white audiences. Less well-educated, less affluent audiences. “We have a long way to go to reach people who might not think any of the art is for them.” She added: “We used to think museums were irrelevant to 16- to 26-year-olds, but you have to be open at different times of day – then they come.”

Assume the Tate late events are safe, then. And Balshaw has got form when it comes to young people. After a career in academia, her first arts job in 2002 was as director of Creative Partnerships, a government campaign to inspire creativity in schools. She introduced a Whitworth Young Contemporaries curating scheme for under-25s; when the judges for Museum of the Year visited the gallery in 2015, a youth-led event – including a local grime act – was scheduled. Going ahead was a risk but, she recounted in an interview with Creative Review, they decided “fuck it, it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?” The Whitworth won.

There’s nothing better than a toddler’s or a teenager’s view on whatever particularly difficult work problem you’re wrestling with,” she told the Observerlast year. And Balshaw has no shortage of youthful views: she and her husband, Nick Merriman, director of Manchester Museum, have four teenage children between them.

The world-view of a new generation seems set to shape her vision for the Tate as much as any reverence for art history. “Young people today have a sophisticated grasp of identity, its fluidity, how it is culturally defined, [not as] post-structuralist theory but as lived reality,” she told the FT.

Still, Balshaw is herself steeped in theory: she took an MA in critical theory at the University of Sussex, followed by a doctorate in African American visual and literary culture. With Balshaw at the helm, visitors can expect a curatorial twist towards global and identity politics, with storytelling and sociological shows – such as the recent Queer British Art show – alongside blockbuster exhibitions of great white males.

She’s boldly unabashed in declaring that there needs to be fewer of the latter, suggesting there’s been an overdominance of white European work at the Tate. And expect to see more neglected international female artists too – something the institution has already begun to address, with shows of artists such as Mira Schendel, Sonia Delaunay and Fahrelnissa Zeid.

An avowed feminist – obviously – Balshaw delivers her radical intent with a certain breeziness, casually mentioning she is aiming for total gender parity. “I don’t strive for shows 50 per cent by women because that’s a feminist gesture, but because we want to refer to the world we live in,” she explains.

She very visibly championed female artists during her time at the Whitworth, with shows by Parker, Elizabeth Price and Marina Abramovic (with whom she reportedly bonded over a shared love of fashion).

“If there are great female artists out there who aren’t getting the profile or exhibition space they should, she will fight their corner,” John McGrath, director of the Manchester International Festival, said.

Some will no doubt accuse Balshaw of diversity box-ticking. But widening out the stories the Tate tells is one way to attempt to attract the wider audience she craves. It’s also surely a pressing concern at a time when, to some, the country feels bitterly divided between young and old, north and south, haves and have-nots.

Balshaw is a canny appointment in such a climate. She has less of the whiff of the metropolitan cultural elite than your average cultural figurehead.

Born in Birmingham, she attended an unexceptional comprehensive in Northamptonshire. Her degree is from Liverpool, not Oxbridge, and her career has been in the Midlands and north; she can’t be accused of being part of the London bubble, at least.

And Balshaw has already proved to be a nimble operator in politically troubled times. One of the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy was a young artist, Khadija Saye. When the Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak tweeted Balshaw to suggest the Tate should show her work, she promised to put one of the 24-year-old’s works on display the following week – proof that even megalithic institutions can move rapidly to reflect the nation’s mood.

She’s a confidently outward-facing figure: she tweets everything from a defence of Ariana Grande to a take-down of Nigel Farage, and Instagrams wonky selfies of her beloved bright, bold dresses as well as art openings. You can’t quite imagine Serota sharing a snap of himself making a late-night cheese toastie at the Venice Biennale…

Unlike her predecessor, Balshaw isn’t from a curatorial background – raising eyebrows among some in the art world, who fear her knowledge may not be up to snuff, although seen as a positive by others. Last summer, Balshaw told the Observer: “If I feel a bit sick at the thought of an idea, a bit ‘oooh, God, this is scary’ … that feeling in the gut makes me realise that, yes, this is a challenging and therefore sensible thing to do.” Fear can be a useful spur, it seems.


Born Maria Jane Balshaw in Birmingham, 24 January 1970, and grew up in Northampton and Leicester. Studied English at Liverpool University and Critical Theory at Sussex. Married to Manchester Museum director Nick Merriman. They have four children between them.

Best of times Making history as the first woman director of the Tate.

Worst of times Not many professionally – she’s thought to have applied to be director of the British Museum in 2015, a post which went to Hartwig Fischer.

What she says “I’m also a profoundly physical person. I have my best ideas in the 30 minutes following my almost daily yoga session.”

What they say “To define herself as a leader she needs to establish herself not as a cultish follower — there have been too many who have buckled under the pressure of Sir Nicholas’s firm thumb — but as someone with the fresh ideas and creative vision to take the organisation into the future. She is clearly possessed of both.” Rachel Campbell-Johnston, art critic, the Times

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