Past Events

The Paul Mellon Lectures: Maria Balshaw, Director of Tate

Lecture – Maria Balshaw

  • 24 November 2021
  • 5:00 – 6:30 pm
  • The fifth of six lectures on the topic of The Museum and Gallery Today, part of the 2021 Paul Mellon Lectures.
  • Online

Looking Back to Move Forward: British Art History at Tate

Founded in 1897, Tate was established to be the national collection of British art. Now spanning more than five hundred years of art history, we still hold this remit even as Tate’s collection has expanded to embrace modern and contemporary international art.

The responsibility for holding this history and shaping narratives about the UK’s past and present has perhaps never been more complex and contested. But, in this sometimes-fraught moment, there is great excitement and dynamism to be seen as we test new ways of working with our history now. Rather than seeing this as a ‘problem’ for our museum and our collection – pitching us into the polarised and unhelpful terrain of a so-called ‘culture war’ – we might rather see this as the most exhilarating challenge for a national museum to grasp.

This is a challenge which asks us to make a nuanced case for the importance of deep understanding of the complex social and cultural history we inherit in the form of the works in our care, if we are to fully appreciate the relevance of these artworks for our contemporary moment. This might also allow the productive relinquishing of a singular authoritative view on this past, to move instead to the exploration and amplification of different views and different orders of knowledge as the desired approach to talking about our complex past.

With a public returning to the museum after the isolation and social disruption of the past eighteen months, there is no better time to explore the ways in which museums might be uniquely placed to hold the contradictions, challenges and illuminations of our past, as the means to better engage with our diverse public now. This talk will draw some examples from Tate, as well as some international peer museums, in order to suggest some possible routes toward listening differently to our past in our present.

Established in 1994, this lecture series was named in honour of Paul Mellon (Yale College, class of 1929), the philanthropist, collector of British art, and founder of both the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) in New Haven and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (PMC). Co-organised by the two institutions, these biennial lectures have traditionally been given by a specialist in British art, first at the National Gallery, London, and again at the YCBA in New Haven.

This year’s series, entitled The Museum and Gallery Today, is exclusively online and features individual talks from some of the world’s most distinguished museum and gallery directors. The lectures are presented as free live webinars. Registration is required.

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Maria Balshaw in front of gigantic red fabric sculpture

    Maria Balshaw is Director of Tate, a role she has held since June 2017. She has overall responsibility for Tate’s strategic direction and day-to-day operations. She has worked to reframe the context and perspective of this long-established institution to engage with sensitive times, furthering the mission of inclusiveness and equality to connect with a wider audience. As Director, Maria is also the Accounting Officer appointed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Previously, Maria was Director of the Whitworth, University of Manchester; Director of Manchester City Galleries; and Director of Culture for Manchester City Council.

    Maria holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Liverpool and a Master of Arts degree in Critical Theory and a DPhil in African American Visual and Literary Culture from the University of Sussex. Maria is Chair of the National Museum Directors’ Council and is a Trustee of the Clore Leadership Programme and Manchester International Festival’s Boards. In 2015, she was awarded a CBE for services to the arts.