Talking to Tim Marlow of the Design Museum

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A chat with the Design Museum’s Chief Executive and Director Tim Marlow

Tim Marlow is steeped in art. From when he gained his degree at Courtauld Institute of Art, he has written about it – including studies of Rodin and Schiele – talked about it – he won a Sony Award for BBC Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope programme, which he presented between 1991 and 1998 – and has been responsible for over 100 documentaries on the subject for radio and television. For over ten years he was Head of Exhibitions at White Cube before becoming Artistic Director at the Royal Academy of Arts for five years. In the latter role, he oversaw major exhibitions including 2015’s Ai Weiwei show and 2019’s presentation of Antony Gormley’s work.

To widen the list further, he sits on the Board of Trustees of the Imperial War Museum and Sadler’s Wells, is on the Advisory Board for Art on the Underground, and was the founder of Tate: The Art Magazine. Oh, and he was also awarded the OBE in the 2020 New Year Honours list for services to the arts.

He took over at the Design Museum from the start of 2020 as it settled into its new-ish home in Kensington.

As he completes his first year in charge, we took the opportunity to grab a few words.

Was there a key moment in your young life that first drew you towards art?

It was cumulative and began with a rare bat and ended up with Rembrandt’s ‘Head of a Soldier’ via Salvador Dali’s ‘Christ of St John of the Cross’. This was at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow – an encyclopaedic collection whose range and variety were very exciting for an eight-year-old kid.

I think seeing the Rothko ‘Seagram Murals’ at the old Tate Gallery in my teens had a more discernibly profound and immediate impact. I was overwhelmed and bemused by them in equal measure and couldn’t get them out of my head. I guess I still can’t.

Were you a frequent visitor to galleries and museums?

I grew up in Derbyshire and Northamptonshire, so old churches, houses and castles were on my more immediate cultural (and geographical) landscape. We came up to London regularly and visited museums – I remember being obsessed by the National Maritime Museum and Nelson’s bullet-pierced uniform. And we went to Glasgow/Edinburgh every summer, hence the love of Kelvingrove. 

Have your favourites changed over the years? Are there any you still gravitate towards today?

Like my tastes, they’ve developed and expanded with travel. I love the Met in New York and always find an afternoon to visit when I’m there. The Beyeler in Basel has a formidable collection in a wonderful building by Renzo Piano. Spending time there is always a pleasure. The Accademia in Venice, too, where you’re surrounded by work made in the city that itself is an epic sculptural installation. But back home, I still have a soft spot for what is now Tate Britain. 

Are you a practising visual artist yourself?

No – not even close! And spending time with great art and knowing many artists reinforces this. My inspiration is in the encounters I have with other people’s art. 

How did you break into a career in the arts?

I guess it stemmed from my time as a post-graduate at the Courtauld in the late eighties. My research into British sculpture in the 1960s led to my meeting various people who were instrumental in my life and career – Bryan Robertson, former director of the Whitechapel, who recommended me to BBC Radio 4’s daily arts programme Kaleidoscope as a possible reviewer; Tony Caro, the first major artist I interviewed, whose work I still admire deeply; Tim Hilton, Guardian art critic and writer who commissioned a few pieces from me, and Dick Humphreys at the Tate Gallery, who gave me the chance to do some lunchtime lectures there. He was a Chelsea fan – as am I – and we planned lecture programmes on the terraces at Stamford Bridge. It doesn’t get much better than that really. 

How would you describe what you do at this point in your life?

Harness the skills, vision and energy of talented people – in particular the staff at the Design Museum. 

How has your first year at the Design Museum been?

Not as anticipated, for sure, but I remain full of optimism and belief in the importance of the only museum devoted to design in the country. 

Has Covid-19 accelerated a move into a more digital experience for the museum?

I think it has emphasised how much we all need and value  collective, visceral experience and human interaction in physical spaces, but certainly the role of digital programming has become more important. We spend substantial amounts of time and money creating exhibitions which are designed to be encountered in the museum, but the appetite for digital explorations for those who can’t visit or for those who want to re-examine the exhibition is growing. 

Do you think there is a clear dividing line where art ends and design begins, or that one merges into the other?

I’ve always been more interested in the blurring of boundaries than in futile attempts to delineate. Art has been more self-consciously (and self-critically) porous over the past century whereas Design is naturally all pervasive. It affects everything from objects to systems but it’s only recently been understood in these terms. 

What can we look forward to from the Design Museum in 2021 and the future?

So much…! We have a major survey of Charlotte Perriand’s design and architecture, building on the achievement of the epic Paris show a year ago. She’s so important and yet so underrated in the UK. We are also doing a great Sneakers exhibition – the footwear phenomenon that’s barely a hundred years old but whose impact and influence, from sporting arena to street to catwalk, is incredible. In the autumn, we have ‘Waste Age’ – a landmark project which is also a campaign. As for 2022 … well, watch this space.

Photo credit

Design Museum photography by Gareth Gardner

Tim Marlow portraits by Sebastian Nevols