The Interview with Letizia Treves, Curator of Italian and Spanish Paintings 1600 – 1800 and Head of the Curatorial Department of the National Gallery in London, took place at the National Gallery Café, in a quiet corner where we ordered two Espressos. Letizia was very calm and seemed really happy about her new job. She seemed to have a lot of energy and passion for her work. She left Sotheby’s because she needed a new challenge, and when an opportunity that seemed bespoke for her came along it was impossible for her to say no. Letizia was wearing a simple dress and ballerina shoes, adorned with an ancient family ring and a metal banded Swiss watch.
Why did you leave your position as a Senior Director at Sotheby’s to become Head of the Curatorial Department of the National Gallery?
I had been at Sotheby’s since 1996. I had always been a specialist in Old Masters’ paintings in London, and for the last eight years I became senior specialist in Italian paintings worldwide. The main reason I left is that, while I had carved out an academic role within Sotheby’s, I needed intellectual stimulation – and I had always wanted to work in a museum but the right opportunity had not come up. Here there is the responsibility of running the Curatorial Department hand in hand with curating the Italian and Spanish Baroque, which is my passion, and I thought “now or never”. It is almost a job that was written for me, my dream job.
To be a curator is very different from working in an auction house?
It is more about conserving and preserving what you have and also the responsibility for what you have. There is a very funny phrase in English which is “the poacher turned gamekeeper”.
But it is not really that different?
There are some common points. In my sixteen years at Sotheby’s I helped and advised collectors to put together collections, how to manage them, how to do conservation and framing…
On the market today, Old Masters are not as popular as contemporary art. Do you think that is right?
I don’t think this is true. The market has globalised, and at a top level you deal with the same collectors. Your collector can have a fantastic Warhol hanging next to a 14th century Italian Gold-ground. A perfect example of this is Frieze, which has an Old Masters department and a contemporary art department, the one right next to the other.
But, on the market today, prices are not comparable?
No, but at the top end Old Masters can fetch multiple millions of pounds. In relative terms Old Masters are more affordable and it is a much more stable market.
Are the majority of masterpieces in museums?
Not always. You can still make discoveries. For example at the National Gallery we have a painting by Annibale Carracci, “The Montalto Madonna”. Previously thought to be lost, it was known only through copies – and a few years ago an English gentleman brought this painting into Sotheby’s, wrapped in his dog’s blanket, convinced it was a copy. We went on to prove that it was the lost original.
But Old Master collectors are fewer in number when compared to others?
They are, but they are also loyal collectors, they don’t buy purely for investment or for social standing. Generally they are both genuinely interested and very knowledgeable about what they collect. I have had more intellectual conversations with collectors than I have with art historians!
Which are the masterpieces of Italian and Spanish Baroque at the National Gallery?
The Italian Baroque has been greatly added to by the paintings that belonged to Sir Denis Mahon. Outside of Bologna, the National Gallery is probably the best place to see artists like Guercino and Guido Reni in one place. Obviously we have three masterpieces of Caravaggio from different periods of his career. We have the Rokeby Venus by Velazquez, the only nude by this artist and one of the top ten favourite pictures of the gallery. But I don’t like classifying pictures as masterpieces because a picture like the Rokeby Venus is also much greater because of the context in which it hangs, with seven or eight other Velazquez.
How many visitors do you have per year?
Last year we had 5,300,000 – 60% of which were tourists. We have to consider that one does not pay an Admission Fee. Only our exhibitions at the Sainsbury Wing are ticketed. Our challenge is to make sure that the visitor experience remains memorable. We have regular visitors who come back to the gallery every week and listen to the free talks.
Do you have many donors?
We have a patrons group called The George Beaumont Group who are more or less two hundred members, but we also have supporters that give money to specific projects or those who generously lend or bequeath pictures to the Gallery. But now, facing further budget cuts, fundraising becomes even more important, particularly in institutions like the National Gallery which is free.
What kind of incentives are there in the UK for donors?
There are two important schemes run by Art Council England. One is AiL (Acceptance in Lieu) with which individuals can settle inheritance tax through donating works of art to institutions in the UK. The other began in 2012, the CGS (Cultural Gifts Scheme), in which an individual or a corporation can settle tax by giving works of art in their lifetime. This means that museums like the National Gallery can get allocated works of art without acquiring them. This is a huge advantage for the tax payer but also for the Museum. For instance when Lucien Freud died his painting by Corot, “An Italian Woman”, was left to the National Gallery by his estate.
What exhibitions are coming up?
2014 is a very busy year. We have more exhibitions than usual and they are of extraordinary variety. We start with Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance, then we have Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, a major international show, the first of its kind in Britain – and it will take place on the main floor of the gallery. Then we have Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting, then a history of colour, made with our scientific department – and then, in the Autumn, the late Rembrandt, Rembrandt: The Final Years, with the Rijksmuseum.
If I understand you well you are not worried about the Old Masters?
No, but I think that the greatest challenge today is to make our collections feel relevant to 21st century audiences.
London. December 4th, 2013.
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