24 MARCH 2001, Page 52

Battles with my trustees

As the Whitechapel celebrates its centenary, Mark Glazebrook remembers his time as director

The primary impulse behind the founding of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, 100 years ago this spring, was philanthropic. The people of the East End of London were notoriously poor. The middle and upper class conscience felt that something should be done about it. Step forward Canon Augustus Barnett of Toynbee Hall (where public figures from Clement Atlee to John Profumo have continued to do good works) and his attractive, determined and fashionably dressed wife Henrietta — who liked to hunt, incidentally. Knowing from the Bible that man cannot live by bread alone and mindful of Matthew Arnold's notions about spreading sweetness and light through art and culture, Canon Barnett hit on the idea of holding art exhibitions at nearby St Jude's school. The canon was particularly enthusiastic about the Pre-Raphaelites who so often provided him with what he called 'sermons on the walls'.

The exhibitions at St Jude's were so successful that a public subscription fund was set up to build a splendid art gallery. When the Whitechapel opened its doors for the first time on 12 March 1901 a mass audience from a pre-televisual age poured in at a rate of 12,000 a day — 300,000 in the first month. Charles Aitken, the first director (who, like Nicholas Serota, pulled off the coveted Whitechapel/Tate double), was alert to modern, less literary art than Canon Barnett. He provided aesthetic expertise to balance the canon's ethical approach and the very first show combined Modem Pictures by Living Artists with Pre-Raphaelites and other English Masters. The exhibitions Chinese Life and Art and then Scottish Art were also mounted in 1901.

When the initial enthusiasm wore off, the lack of any endowment led to a passive role and the gallery's shows became more and more parochial. 1909 led off with Stepney Children's Pageant followed by Tuberculosis, a public-health information show. By 1910 the gallery had become prey to the Society of Essex Artists and the Toynbee Art Club. One show a year normally had a spark of life in it, notably the controversial Review of Modem Movements in 1914, but between the wars there was no director, only a secretary called Duddington. The great coup of showing Picasso's 'Guernica' in 1939 was fixed up by the trade unions. The Whitechapel Art Gallery was not brought back to anything approaching the vitality of its first years until after the second world war. The second Viscount Bearsted, a collector of Old Master paintings with roots in the locality, became chairman. Hugh Scrutton, who later directed the National Gallery of Scotland, was made director. Grants were negotiated with the local authorities. The Whitechapel as we know it, however, was reinvented by Bryan Robertson between 1952 and 1968.

It was my privilege to follow Robertson in what had become a high-profile job for the tumultuous three years 1969-71. In early 1969 I walked up to the director's office, to meet the full body of the trustees for the first time. I was bursting with energy and optimism. 'Wait outside, please,' said Mr Bailey, the chairman's secretary from Hill Samuel, the merchant bank. The chairman was Dick Bearsted, the third Viscount. I waited outside for 45 minutes, getting colder and colder. Cigarette smoke came pouring out from under the door. I could hear muffled but raised trustee voices, resisting my appointment, which had already been announced. Individually, most of the trustees were fine. Collectively they became a nightmare. They were too numerous. In theory there were 26 of them, appointed by bodies that had been relevant to the policy of the gallery in 1901. Walter Birmingham, the warden of Toynbee Hall, told me that he had tried to reduce their number by half, which they had agreed in principle, but when it came to the crunch nobody wanted to go. The situation was even more laughable because in my day the trustees provided only £500, which was unhealthy from the point of view of the Whitechapel's independence. (I was grateful when the chairman's daughter, Felicity Samuel, sponsored a Richard Long show.) This £500 came from City Parochial Charities which had provided £500 in 1901. CPC also provided three trustees, one of whom was our vice-chairman, a Mrs Strauss, whom many found distinctly unhelpful. I'd have gladly given £500 to get rid of her when she tried to stop David Hockney donating an edition of lithographs which raised £6,000.

Far worse than the trustee problem was the financial crisis. The local authorities of both Tower Hamlets and Hackney had cut off their grants on the grounds that the gallery was no longer sensitive to local needs. This had the knock-on effect of endangering the larger GLC and Arts Council grants. Lord Goodman, chairman of the Arts Council, fixed a meeting with the local authorities to ask them to rethink, but they failed to turn up. Later, Eric Moonman MP, a trustee who was quite rightly exasperated and furious at the whole situation, took me to see some local councillors, to persuade them of the local relevance of my programme. After all, Gilbert & George, who showed both in my day and in Nicholas Serota's, were local artists. I remember Eric saying in desperation at one point, 'Mr Glazebrook wants to bring a show from the East End of Rotterdam.' This remark referred to a crowd-pulling show, sponsored by the Daily Express, called Salvador Dali: Art in Jewels. The councillors wouldn't budge.

In the end, the GLC and the Arts Council agreed to give us enough to keep the doors open. I tried to get more out of the then chairman of the Arts Council's art panel, Sir John Pope-Hennessy. 'I think you could do some interesting things with posters,' he squeaked over lunch, fixed up by a mutual friend.

Because of the international reputation Bryan Robertson had built up, we were able to survive 1969 with shows sponsored by foreign governments and other bodies. Brazil paid for Oiticica. Canada paid for two shows and Israel for one. I enjoyed working on Helen Frankenthaler, the last of Bryan's American shows. In 1970 David Hockney saved us with his lithograph, 'Pretty Tulips', in an edition of a hundred. The Hockney catalogue, selling at £1, made a good profit too, enough to risk publishing a substantial catalogue for the show of Modem Chairs. arranged by Carol Hogben from the V&A's circulation department, and bumped up by Observer sponsorship. My American assistant Helene Winer arranged a marvellous Robert Graham show. We were offered a great Don Judd show from Holland and because of David's generosity we could pay the hiring fee. The Hockney show was the most popular since Rauschenberg in 1964. The British Council toured it abroad and paid our transport costs.

By now I felt we had earned an increase in our grants. I went before the Arts Council art panel to beg. I failed but, oddly enough, the Arts Council — or rather Lord Goodman — helped in my struggle to bring back the Whitechapel's upper gallery, which had been let out since the war. The 1971 programme of nine shows, including Jack Smith, Kenneth and Mary Martin, Gilbert & George and Richard Long doesn't look too bad on paper, in retrospect, but I couldn't afford to publish catalogues, plan my own shows or plan ahead, so I resigned. I preferred to resign rather than bow to the pressure of the time, in the light of the recent arrival of the Hayward, Serpentine and new ICA galleries, to lower standards. I was deeply disappointed but I'm sure it was the right thing to do.

The Whitechapel Centenary exhibition runs until 20 May.