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10 April 2015updated 15 Apr 2015 10:13am

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.

By Mark Lawson

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.

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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.

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