Sir Norman Rosenthal


1. What was the first show you curated?
The first show I curated was called “Artists in Cornwall,” which took place in the Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester, in England in 1965. I was a second year undergraduate—what you call in the US a sophomore!— and 19 years old. It was part of the University Arts Festival, of which I was the co-organizer. I did the show, organized a Symphony concert, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, and acted, as the man in the middle pot, in the illicit world premier of “Play”, by Sam Beckett. Somehow we got hold of the text! The exhibition itself, which had a small, elegant catalogue, included works by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and other artists of the St. Ives School, many of whom had strong connections with the American Abstract Expressionists.

2. How did you become a curator?
It was by accident. I studied neither art nor art history, but rather general history, and anticipated becoming a school master. Looking for a holiday job I wandered into what was then London’s leading Old Master Gallery, Thomas Agnew & Sons. I was taken on as the librarian and researcher, stayed three years—and, with various ups and downs I have never looked back!.

3. What is the most important project you have worked on?
Without question the exhibition “A New Spirit in Painting”, which opened at the Royal Academy in January 1981. I had as co-curators Christos Joachimides (a German-Greek independent curator in Berlin, with whom in 1974 I had organized a German political Art Show that included Joseph Beuys’ first large-scale appearance in London) and Nicholas Serotta (then Director of the Whitechapel). The exhibition included the first presentation in a non-German speaking world of the now famous German artists of that generation (Baselitz, Kiefer, Penck, Polke, Richter, etc.), artists of the Italian Transavanguardia, American painting, including both late De Kooning and a young Julian Schnabel. The exhibition also included four great paintings done after 1970 by Picasso, the presentation of which began the reevaluation of late Picasso, and subsequently swept the world. The exhibition, though not well received in London at the time, I really believe, changed the perception of contemporary art at the time on both sides of the Atlantic. The following year, Christos and I organized a more Baroque version of the show in West Berlin, with the title “Zeitgeist,” the new painting of the time centered around an immense installation of Joseph Beuys’ “Stag Monuments”.

4. What is the best job you’ve ever had?
Obviously my 31 years as Exhibitions Secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It was an incomparable experience organizing exhibitions around so many different subjects, both old and new. As Ernst Gombrich said to me in his inimitable Austrian accent, when I got the job: “You are so lucky Norman, you will learn so much!”. He was right! 

5. What is your current affiliation to the Royal Academy?
I have not really returned to the Royal Academy after retiring about two years ago, but I did initiate the Anish Kapoor exhibition, which just opened, and have discussed the shape of the show with the artist behind the scenes, and written an article for the catalogue.

6. What is the shortest amount of time in which you’ve put on an exhibition?
At the time of the second Iraq War, the Royal Academy was organizing an exhibition with Egypt, which then had to be called off! Within one year we managed to organize, from start to finish, an extraordinary exhibition called “The Turks. A Journey of a Thousand Years,” with incredible loans, many never seen before in public, from Topkapi and other Turkish museums, but also other extraordinary pieces from museums from all over Europe and the United States. This could not have been done without the unbelievable commitment of two individuals, namely Dr. Nazan Olçer, a great scholar-impresario from Istanbul, and Dr. David Roxburgh, a brilliant Scottish young art historian professor from Harvard. Together we achieved five years of work in less than one with astonishing success, including a great scholarly catalogue. In general, when projects fell through, which they did occasionally, we filled up the gap with contemporary art. This is how both “A New Spirit” took place, as well as “Sensation”, which took place in 1997, based on Charles Saatchi collection of the Young British artists, Damien Hirst, etc, etc. Sometimes shows would take ten years from first ideas to ultimate realization—or example, “Mantegna,” in 1994. But contemporary art is best done a great speed and in heat!

7.  What are you currently working on?
I am working closely with Tom Krens on projects around the world. Tom who is arguably the most hated man in the world of art, but is in fact a great poet, dreamer, and driven achiever. The Guggenheim Bilbao changed a city only for the best and I am sure his project for Abu Dhabi will be the same. It has been a privilege to work with him over many years and I hope we will be continue succesfully into the future over the next decade or so.  I am also working with a great collector/philanthropist in New York, and have assisted him to put together an astonishing collection of 17th Century Dutch Old Masters around the figure of Rembrandt, a world that I got to know in my days at Agnew’s in the 60s. I am working with a number of artists friends of mine on various projects over the next years.

8. What is your advice to young curators?

Never stop looking, never stop learning, and don’t have prejudices. Look at the great art of the past of all cultures, which has to be the measure. The world is full of kaleidoscopic possibilities and each and everyone has its place. But don’t try to present them all in one go, which is the problem with most biennale type shows. No one can read all the plays of Shakespeare in one evening. 

Robert Motherwell and Norman Rosenthal during installation of his Motherwell (paintings and collages 1941–) exhibition at the Royal Academy, London. January–March 1978, with members of Royal Academy staff; on right, John Kasmin (father of Paul Kasmin). This was the first Rosenthal-initiated show at the Academy.