BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were castaway to a desert island for right reasons. The music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. My castaway this week is the director of Tite Maria Balshaw, her position at the helm of the four galleries makes her one of the most powerful people in the art world and by extension, British culture.
She's likened Tate's success in bringing contemporary art into the mainstream to sport. Seeing contemporary art used to be like fencing. Now it's like athletics.
She'd better get her running shoes on. Then, at the time of recording, her galleries are set for their own Super Saturday, with all four tapes about to reopen for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown. There are big challenges facing the cultural sector. Luckily, challenging has always been part of her brief. She's championed radical creativity ever since the explosive sculpture of artist Cornelia Parker opened her mind one Saturday afternoon in 1991 and put her on the track that led to her current career.
She turned around the fortunes of Manchester Art Gallery and the city's Whitworth gallery, bringing in 1000 new works and doubling visitor numbers. Though for her, it's not just about how many people visit, it's about who they are, she says. I am committed to making the widest range of people feel that Tate has something to offer them. I want to challenge the social and economic disadvantage that makes people think that they can't come into an institution even though it's free.
Maria Balshaw, welcome to Desert Island Discs.
It's lovely to be with you, Lauren. Thank you for inviting me. Such a pleasure.
So, Tate, modern Britain, St Ives and Liverpool all about to open their doors for the first time since locked down. How does this moment feel?
It feels very exciting, but also with that sense of trepidation and I have to say in many ways, these past few months have been more active than ever as we've been reaching people digitally sharing works from the collection online, supporting children's learning. But I think the biggest feeling is a sense of excitement that the public are going to come back into our spaces.
The artworks have been waiting for them and the idea of bringing those artworks, bringing art into everybody's lives is hugely important to you. Why does it matter to us as individuals and as wider society that that everyone should have access to art?
For centuries, art was part of the life of the elites and not so much part of the life of ordinary people. And for me, seeing the world through the eyes of an artist has opened my mind to different possibilities, different from where I was growing up. And artists perspectives on our world challenge us to think about new ideas, and they take us to different places. So whether they see in a gallery or a museum or whether they see it on their phone or on the street as they move around, I don't really care where people see it, but I think the human practice of making art belongs to all of us.
Maria, it's time to get stuck into something that you've been curating very carefully for us.
Of course, your music list, what's your first disc and why have you chosen it today?
My first is the specials and it's GhostTown. And I chose it because I have a particularly visceral memory of standing on the edge of Dodgems right in Abbington Park in Northampton. And the music was GhostTown. And I was there because my dad was the head of the Park Service in Northampton and he had to licence the fare. And the great benefit of this for me as an 11 year old was that it meant I got a free pass to all the rides.
So I spent a lot of time in fair and my family, especially my extended family, very political. And I realised this song was about the future government and the state of English society. And it made the hairs stand on the back of my neck because it was both effortlessly cool and it was also about protest. And that's very important to me.
This is kind of those kind of clubs being closed down. This place is going to be closed by. As well on Five Star. The Specials and GhostTown Maria Balshaw, you were brought up in Northampton, Yamam Collette was a teacher and as you said, your dad, Walter was a pump keeper. So tell me a little bit about your mom first.
How did she influence you growing up? My mom's the middle child of six Irish Catholic family. Very noisy, but she's the quiet middle one. She worked as a teacher her whole career. She also started to coach gymnastics when we moved to Northampton for my dad's job and she took me to a gymnastics class, I am sure to help me burn off some of my considerable energy. She was a steady, calm, really warm presence throughout my upbringing and interfered surprisingly little in my education, given that she was a teacher.
She just thought I would get on and do the work because, you know, that's what you do. We're very close. And she was a great role model as a working woman.
You say that your dad was the opposite of your mum, so not quiet and also a very good swearer. Tell me a little bit more about him. Well, it's hard to talk about him at the moment because part of my lockdown has been very sad because dad died in his care home, which was a very strange experience.
And because I realize we mourn collectively. I hadn't thought about that. And Dad was a man who liked to go to the pub when most evenings and had a wide network of friends. And we were only eight of us at his funeral. And he, as he said, he was an excellent swimmer. So I would sometimes have to go with Dad and sit in his office. And I honestly thought, age eight or nine, that my dad went to the office to get on the phone and shout at people, often swearing because that was the main thing he seemed to do.
And his swearing was never rude, but it was just very colourful. And he was much loved by his co-workers because he would always say as it was. And I hope that, you know, at least in my best moments, I embody some of dad's energy. And sometimes you do have to be bloody minded to get things done, but that there's my mum's sense of gentleness. And I think she gave me a great gift of calmness.
I have to ask you about another member of your family, your Auntie Sylve, and her Christmas presents, because I know that they were a big deal for you.
Well, I remember in 1983, she bought me two novels, The Color Purple and Meridien by Alice Walker, The Color Purple, especially. I started to read it on Christmas morning. I'd never come across anything like it. And I just curled up in the corner of the living room with all the noise of family around me and just read it from start to finish. And given that I ended up doing my PhD on African American literature and then visual culture, it started there with a gift of those books.
And she worked in the arts. She was a community arts worker and then director, and she was a trailblazer for me.
It's time to go to the music second desk today. This is David Bowie, Wild is the Wind. And for a while my aunt herself was married to Phil Higgs and he was a massive influence on me, used to send me cassette tapes of music that he thought I needed to know about. And one particularly brilliant tape had Bowie's station to station on one side and young Americans on the other. And I listened and listened and listened to that. So it's remembering Phil Higgs music education.
And also because Bowie was for me, one of the great nonconformists, somebody who created himself over and over again.
Oh, my kids love. David Bowie and Wild is the Wind, Maria Balshaw, the town that you grew up in Northampton, didn't have an art gallery, but of course everyone has a cultural hinterland. How would you describe yours?
Much of mine came through Channel four, and I remember vividly seeing Derek Jarman's films on Channel four staying up late. I think I'd had to get special permission for Mum and Dad had gone to bed not wanting to watch art films and some things like Jarman's films spoke of another universe which I didn't see in Northampton around me. But I could imagine and curiosity around foreign language films, that's never left me closer to home.
Of course, you were a schoolgirl in Northampton and while you were there, you said you were rebellious but didn't want to break the rules. So presumably you had to get round them.
How did you do that? Well, I liked learning, but I didn't like being told what to do or think. So there was a school uniform policy, obviously, and I wouldn't absolutely break it, but I would marginally defy it every day. So I would put bright yellow socks on or I would wear a scarf tucked into my shirt instead of a tie and wait until I was called out.
Of course, you were expressing yourself through what you wore at school and your style is still much commented on. What job, I wonder, do the clothes that you wear do for you now? Obviously, there's an element of enjoyment and play there, but it's also a way of articulating who you are to the world.
Yeah, I think for most women our clothes are armour. It makes a statement about who I am and makes a statement about not conforming. And the thing that I, you know, I do most often is wear very, very clashing clothes. The endless commentary on my gold shoes when I was appointed, just the remark always about the colourful dress. It ought to be applied to men as well as women. And I kind of sometimes feel exasperated. Oh, really?
You know, I'm running a museum. I'm not a clothes horse. And I don't like it in that it takes some of the pleasure that I find in playing with identity.
I think for me, it's interesting that you use the word armor because I wonder about those of us who have changed our cultural métier.
Actually, for people like me and perhaps like you, tell me if I'm wrong, you know, your clothes, articulate your qualifications to be where you are to some extent, you know, and actually people whose belonging is never questioned, they don't really have to think about perhaps.
I think that's an absolutely apposite observation. And I know that when I was younger and perhaps had even greater degree of anxiety about my sense of am I even allowed to be in here, I used to dress more formally because I felt I was too young and didn't have the right kind of class background and didn't have the right educational background. And so I had to dress up to prove that I had a right to be there. And certainly since I've been at THATE, I've fully embraced my sense of Trainor's with the dress.
And that reflects in some ways my increased confidence that after all the years that I've worked in museums, I am qualified for the job, even though I still have a sense of impostor anxiety.
It's time for some music. Maria, this is the Pet Shop Boys. It's a sin. I love their music and I especially loved their collaborations with Derek Jarman. And in my final year, I did a cultural studies course in Liverpool which allowed me to write about any cultural phenomenon. And I wrote about television there video and it got me a first. That meant I could go on and do my master's and Ph.D.. But the real reason it's on my list is because dancing to the Pet Shop Boys music in gay clubs was how I spent my teenage years.
So absolutely epic disco.
The Pet Shop Boys, and it's a scene taking you back to your days at University in Liverpool, Maria Bolshoi, is it true that you went to the Tate the first day you arrived?
I did. My parents took me up and said, we'll take you out for lunch. So off we headed to the Albert dock and tasted just opened. It was the first time I'd been into a gallery with my parents. And there was an amazing display from the collection. And I still remember the Dali's lobster telephone at the center of it. And it became my local you know, I nursed student hangovers in the gallery. It was a very welcoming place.
And when friends visited me, we would go there. When my parents came up, we would go there. So I'm very, very fond of Liverpool.
So following your résumé and PhD at Sussex University after Liverpool, you then became a research fellow and lecturer in visual culture at the University of Birmingham. In 1997, you married the first husband, historian Liam Kennedy, and by 2000 you were a mom of two, Jake and Lily.
How did being a parent change you? I had an incredible struggle to have, Jake, I had three miscarriages before I had him and and and I feel in that I went from being a young woman to an adult because I experienced something that I couldn't control, that nobody could explain to me. None of my female friends had ever talked about miscarriage. And yet I now know that so many women experience it. So it was a real pain to overcome.
And then Jake's arrival and then quite soon afterwards, lilies. And, you know, I'd taken four years to write half my thesis and then wrote the last chunk of it in less than four months because I had a limited amount of time to do the work because I wanted to be with the children and also gave me such joy and pleasure. And and I realize now it was very unusual to be an academic of the age I was and choose to have children.
And I did so alongside a great friend, Helen Laville, who is now a pro vice chancellor for education at Manchester. And she and I were young academic women and we kept each other going and we kind of jumped into it because we had no idea how hard it was going to be. But out of that came a much greater clarity of focus about the rest of my life. Let's have some more music. What's next?
This is of the days when I did work in Birmingham alongside my dear friend Helen. And we were in an American studies department and we were obsessed with women's country music. I think all of them, from Dolly through to Patsy Cline, the whole of them are all feminists. And so many of their songs are absolutely inspirational to us as women. But my very favorite of all is Emmylou Harris. So I've picked Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. Love her.
Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons with Love Hurts Mariah Balshaw, you've said that you can pinpoint the moment when you realized that your future lay in the visual arts. So it's 1991 and you saw Cornelia Park as a landmark installation called Dark Matter. Why did it have such a profound impact on you?
Well, it was because it was completely unlike anything I'd ever seen before, and I'm not sure that confirmed for me a career in the arts, but it utterly transformed my thinking about what art even was, because it's not in a frame. It is a garden shed filled with all of the paraphernalia of the typical shed exploded. So Connie set it up in a field, got the help of the Territorial Army to blow up this shed, scattering the fragments all over the field.
And then with a team of volunteers, she collects all the bits and reassembles them hung from wires from the ceiling around the light of a single bulb. So it's an explosion suspended in the air. It casts shadows all the way around that room. And the night before in the pub, somebody said, there's this really strange thing, Atcheson, Hale, Kalari, you ought to go and see her. And so off we went. And I had no idea what I would find when I got there, but it took my breath away.
Years later, you would go on to work with Kornelia on a major retrospective of her work at the Whitworth Art Gallery. You were headhunted to work then.
You were there for a decade and during that time undertook a massive renovation and expansion of the gallery.
What did you want the the architectural changes that you were making to the gallery to achieve the galleries on the edge of the city centre in a park and had this amazing founding mission that it should be for the perpetual gratification of the people of Manchester. And the parks and gardens were part of the offer in the late 19th century, but that had got lost down the years. So when I arrived, there was a really high fence separating the gallery from its own park and it faces Fallowfield and Moss side and it should and now does speak to those communities in all their diversity.
But with the fence around it, it was looking inward. So the architectural changes were all about opening it up to its parks surrounding so that you could see art inside and outside. And we work with wonderful architects, MoMA, who did a beautiful job and in particular created a new wing that extends out into the trees. It feels like you're floating in the treetops when you sit in the cafe. And I sat there one day and saw a little boy on a scooter push himself really fast down the path that led towards the gallery's entrance.
You come in through an art garden now, and his dad was running as fast as he could to keep up with him. And as he scooted towards the entrance, the doors gently opened and he scooted all the way in. And I saw even greater alarm on the face of his father. But then one of the visitor assistants just waved and and welcomed the dad in as well. And I thought, we have done the right thing here. If a child can scoot into the gallery, it's genuinely open to its public.
It's a perfect time to take a moment for some music. This is your fifth track today.
It's Antony and the Johnsons. Hope there's someone. And I chose this because the first year that I was in Manchester was a time of tumultuous change for me. And I'd moved the children, moved the city, moved their schools, moved house, moved jobs. And I also separated from my first husband and then started a relationship with my now husband, Nick. And I listen to this album for the whole of the year. It kept me going through an incredibly difficult time in my life.
And so it makes me think of my lovely husband, Nick, because he was the someone who took care of me first as a friend and then later as a husband, hoping someone will take care of me when I.
Will I go? Is someone who set my heart free, nice to hold when I'm tired. Across. Anthony and the Johnsons hope there's someone Maria Balshaw, the whip with, was named the Art Funds Museum of the Year in 2015, and you staged many notable exhibitions and events there. What are people looking for? Do you think?
Because there's obviously the relationship with the artist and their desire to have a kind of creative perspective, but you're also asking the public to engage with it.
How do you know if they will? I think you have to trust and welcome and trust, I think go together. If they're wearing comfortable shoes, they'll go on a long journey. So you have to trust that an artist's work will speak to people's hearts as well as their head. So I think for a long time we imagined that you had to explain the artwork to people. And you do need, I think, some sort of guiding points to get your head into what's going on.
Nobody likes to feel sort of baffled in front of something, but you don't need to tell everybody everything because actually the artwork is about how it makes you feel. And a good response to an artwork or an exhibition is hating it just as much as liking it, because I really don't like this is an incredibly powerful emotional response. And then having to think about why you don't like something, you know, you would be a very peculiar human being if you liked all art.
It's all so different. And I think that's where we're at in terms of what goes on in galleries and museums now, I think we're more adventurous and we trust more in people's own interests, intelligence and curiosity.
It's time for some more music. Maria, what's next and why have you chosen this today?
This one speaks to my time in Manchester and some adventurous journeys I was able to do. The Olympics obviously happened in the UK in 2012 and the cultural organizations were asked to be part of the national cultural celebration of the world coming to the UK, and we set ourselves the task of making a group exhibition that would celebrate the contemporary art of West Africa. So I was able to go to Mali with my daughter Lily, who was 11 years old, and for a long time I'd listened to the music from that country.
So this song is by Toumani Diabate and it's called Kantaras. And it's the most incredible lifting of the riff from Ennio Morricone is music from Fistful of Dollars. And I love that this is intercultural exchange going on there. A Malian musician taking Marconi's signature moment, but making absolutely Malian.
Toumani Diabate and cantaloupe's Maria Balshaw in 2017, you left Manchester to come south and take on your role as director of all 48 galleries, you followed Sir Nicholas Serota and you're the first woman director.
How significant is that fact to you?
Well, it was a huge honor to be selected as the director of St. Nick had done a remarkable 28 years at the Tate and had led a transformation of how all of us understand art and what we think museums are for. So, no, personally, I was really, really honored to be working at the institution I consider to be the leading one in the world. And it was also fantastic to be the first woman in the sense that many other women that I know and many that I didn't know got in touch to say how important they felt it was as a milestone, because there are still very, very few women leading museums anywhere in the world.
And of the many museums in the U.K., I'm the only one leading a national art museum. And so there's another part of me that wants to say that shouldn't be so. And I look forward to the time when no one remarks on the gender of a director. If a man is appointed, it's just his name. And we need to get to that point. And we do in terms of people of color leading our national organizations, because there are none at the moment.
And that doesn't reflect the UK as it is now.
Let's have some more music. It's your seventh disc today. What have you chosen?
It's Billy Bragg and waiting for the Great Leap Forward. Billy, Billy's been important to me since my aunt made me. Now that's what I'd call protest music tape at the height of the miners strike. I love all of his music, but also it's now a song that reminds me so much of my son Jake and godson Ryan and Lily and Lauren, my goddaughter, leaping forward in the kitchen to this.
They love his music now just as much as I do from Sayles, organized hundreds of feet off the ground and so on these two parties, because you can be active with the active. One name for two names. Back to politics, didn't mean to, right? When Billy Bragg and waiting for the Great Leap Forward, Maria Balshaw, it's almost time to cast you away.
But before we do, let's have a look at the future for today's massive challenges ahead of, you know, redundancies have been announced at the galleries. But there is a question mark, over 200 jobs at Tate Enterprises Ltd. That's a commercial subsidiary owned by Tate that operates retail, publishing and catering within your galleries. And the union representing workers who are affected want to intervene?
Well, you we have intervened and we're almost unique in that we run all our own shops and cafes. And that means that everything that people experience at Tate is it reflects our values. But that means when we are facing 50 percent fewer visitors coming to our galleries for probably quite a long time, that sadly, at the moment the trading business is too big because we won't be able to open all the cafes in the shops in the same way. So we are consulting with staff about redundancies, but we have used as much of our own reserves as we can to preserve the jobs throughout this period.
So staff were kept on 100 percent pay all the way through lockdown. And we've delayed this this period of consultation for as long as we can. And we don't want to lose any staff, but we know we have to. Otherwise, the business won't be able to trade. And we will make sure that as visitors do return and as we get properly post covid, they will be given the first option to come back and work for us because we recognize the hard work that they do and how valuable they are to us.
Time for one more choice. Maria, what are we going to hear for your final disc today? We're going to hear Storm the Crown. And this song is for the amazing group of teenagers who have been part of my life for the last five or six years. Lili's circle of friends, Stephen and Chris and Grace and Meccan Sunny and Clive, who listen to Stormy and Dave and many other black musicians. And this song, I think more than any other, speaks to the challenges of making change happen.
Storms themselves been extraordinary in terms of committing resources to allow young people to have scholarships to go to Cambridge and to supporting action around race equality. But this song also speaks of the challenges he faces in carrying that work forward.
So it's a very serious and I think important song searching every corner of momma. Looking for the answers I can't find. I have my reasons and life has its lessons, I try to be grateful and count my blessings, but heavy is the worst. Storms and Crown Maria Balshaw, it's time to cast you away to your island.
We'll give you the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare and a book of your own.
What will you take with you? Well, I'd like the punishments rather than the Bible, because my dad was a confirmed agnostic and he was very opposed to the Bible in particular. So he would look down, having recently passed and not approve if I took that. But it's another spiritual text and it would help me with my yoga. So I hope that's okay.
Of course, the book I would like is not a novel. I would like Vickery's folk flora, which tells you the stories and folklore as well as the uses of plants.
Certainly you can have that's yours. You can also have a luxury item. Of course, we've sent away lots of art galleries and even artworks in the past.
What will you be taking with you? Well, I'd like to take with me the ability to create something I regard as an artwork, which is Derek Jarman's garden at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness. And I'm hoping that my desert island will be like the Qingguo beaches of Dungeness because I like that sense of desolation rather than a kind of luxurious golden sandy beach. So I'd like the flowers that are in that garden, but also some vegetable seeds.
And finally, if you had to just save one of your eight discs, which would you go for? It would have to be Billy Bragg's waiting for the Great Leap Forward, because it reminds me of my children and my step sons, Robert and Lucas and all of them loving that music because it reminds me of my whole family, disputatious socialists, everyone, and because it's a record about optimism.
Maria Balshaw, thank you very much for sharing your Desert Island Discs with us.
Thank you, Lauren. I very much hope you enjoyed my conversation with Maria. You'll find lots of artists in our Desert Island Discs back catalog, including Damien Hirst, Lubna Hamid, Jeremy Dallah and Tracey Emin. And you can listen to all of those editions on BBC Sands.
This is the last Desert Island Discs in our current run, and we're taking our usual five week summer break. But in the meantime, we'll be dropping a classic episode into your podcast feed until we're back on air in September. We hope you enjoy them.
Hello, it's me, Greg Jennett, that bloke from that Funny History podcast, You're Dead to Me and big news, we are back once again, combining the talents of comedians and expert historians as we explore stuff like ancient Egyptian pyramids, Genghis Khan and 19th century vampire literature. Search for your dead to me on the BBC. Sounds at.