The atrium at the British Museum. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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Neil MacGregor, Kevin Spacey and Nicholas Hytner: exeunt stage right

Three titans of British culture are stepping down this year. Mark Lawson looks at their legacy – and the space they’ll leave behind.

It is an ancient rule of journalism that, while two instances of something are a coincidence, three constitute a trend. So the departures of high-profile directors of leading British artistic institutions are now officially trending, following the announcement by Neil MacGregor at the British Museum that he will follow Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre and Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic Theatre by leaving office this year.

As the three men all took up their posts between 2002-4, their incumbencies have overlapped for a decade and all faced a very similar challenge: how to attract larger and broader audiences at a time when, in the case of Hytner and MacGregor, their public funding was diminishing in real terms and, for Spacey, was non-existent: the Old Vic, which he took over after a series of unsuccessful occupancies by various companies, receives no direct Arts Council grant.

With a strategy that will surely be taught on arts administration courses, MacGregor and Hytner fought for easier admission – free entry at the BM, the £10-£12 Travelex reduced ticket scheme at the NT – and took their wares to places they were not usually available: the British Museum toured and lent objects more and show-cased them through old and new media in the Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, while the National has beamed its shows (and those of other theatres) into cinemas around the UK and the world in the NT Live scheme.

Apart from access and out-reach, Hytner and MacGregor also became the public leaders of their sectors, making the case for museums and theatre in Whitehall and across broadcasting.

Spacey’s legacy is less tangible. A number of the shows he put on at the Vic – including the plays Cloaca and Resurrection Blues – were notorious stinkers and he was generally at his best there as an actor – in Richard III and Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow – rather than a director or administrator. In a way unwise for any company, he was himself the brand, although this focus brought advantages.

The loss of a planned major revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America would have been catastrophic for most repertory theatres but Spacey was able to fill the gap with a run of his sell-out one-man show Clarence Darrow. In a theatre without government funding, Spacey was, in effect, the Old Vic’s subsidy and it is his publicity and box office impact that the theatre will most miss, although he seems likely to return to the venue as a performer.

Although coming from very different backgrounds – in Glasgow, Manchester and New Jersey – MacGregor, Hytner and Spacey are, like most British cultural leaders of their generations, all men. And it will be noted that Hytner and Spacey have also been replaced by blokes: Rufus Norris and Matthew Warchus.

Gender analysis of appointments is complicated by the fact that, if Marianne Elliott had made herself available for the National job, she would almost certainly have got it, ahead of Norris. And strong female candidates to replace Spacey – Josie Rourke and Vicky Featherstone – had already been installed at other venues, the Donmar and the Royal Court, before the Old Vic vacancy came up.

Even so, the British Museum board has an opportunity to break the apparent stone ceiling at the UK’s greatest cultural institutions and should surely look closely at the very talented Dr Maria Balshaw of the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester among a list of contenders that will surely also look at directors across Europe and the US although it is possible that there might be some journalistic and political opposition to a building with such a nationally emblematic name being run by someone from abroad – an equivalent to the opposition that Sven-Goran Erikkson faced as the first foreign coach of the English football team.

In another footballing metaphor, some candidates to follow MacGregor might also fear becoming a David Moyes, the coach who failed horribly at Manchester United to replicate the long success achieved by Sir Alex Ferguson. Norris and Warchus, although having taken the National Theatre and Old Vic jobs, may also have reason to fear the parallel.

The only drawback to making a very successful appointment – as the boards of all three institutions did a decade or so ago – is the the difficulty of finding an equivalent successor.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Money for old Gove

Backstabbing Boris, a doctored doctorate, and when private schools come to Parliament.

Treachery is proving profitable for Michael Gove since his backstabbing of Boris Johnson led to the victim being named Foreign Sec and the knifeman carved out of Theresa May’s cabinet. The former injustice secretary was overheard giving it the big “I am” in the Lords café bar by my snout and boasting that he’ll trouser £300,000 on the political sidelines. I note a £150,000 Times column and £17,500 HarperCollins book deal have been duly registered. Speaking engagements, he confided to the Tory peer Simone Finn, will be equally lucrative.

Gove is polite (always says hello and smiles at me despite what I write) but it was insensitive to talk money when his companion was moaning. Finn, a Cameron crony, whined that she had been sacked as a spad and so is out of pocket. Perhaps he could lend her a tenner. And I do hope Mickey isn’t passing himself off as an “expert” to coin it.

While Nigel Farage’s successor-but-one Paul “Dr Nutty” Nuttall protests that he never doctored a CV with an invented university PhD, Ukip’s ritzy nonpareil continues to enjoy the high life. My informant spied Farage, the self-appointed people’s chief revolter, relaxing in first class on a British Airways flight from New York to Blighty. Drinking three types of champagne doesn’t come cheap at £8,000 one-way, so either the Brexit elitist is earning big bucks or he has found a sugar daddy. Nowt’s too good for the Quitters, eh?

Labour’s youngest MP, Lou Haigh, was popular in a Justice for Colombia delegation to monitor the Northern Ireland-inspired peace process there. At Normandia prison in Chiquinquira, after a five-hour drive to see Farc guerrillas cleared for release, inmates pushed past the British male trade unionists to greet the 29-year-old Sheffield Heeley tribune. What a change from parliament, where it is women who are treated as if they’re wearing Harry Potter-style invisibility cloaks.

The kowtowing is catching up with Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the SNP party animal and onetime-Tory-turned-Labour. Better late than never, I hear, she delivered a masterclass in toadying to the Chinese at a Ditchley Park conflab. Ahmed-Grovel MP avoided discussion of human rights abuses and made much instead of the joys of Scotch whisky to Beijing, and Scotland as a gateway to the UK. I trust she kept her sycophancy secret from SNP colleagues jostling in parliament a short while back for photographs with Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

John Bercow is concerned that private schools dominate visits to parliament. So a bit like the Commons chamber, where 32 per cent of MPs (48 per cent of Tories) come from establishments that teach 7 per cent of pupils in the UK. 

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump