High-Profile Curator Tim Marlow Is Leaving the Royal Academy to Run London’s Design Museum

The curator and broadcaster takes the helm at the Design Museum in the aftermath of a controversy over its funding.

Artistic director Tim Marlow at the Royal Academy of Art's America Summer Brunch at the Pollock-Krasner House, 2016. Photo by Jared Siskin, Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

Two of London’s largest museums are undergoing a change in leadership. Tim Marlow, the artistic director of the Royal Academy of Arts, has announced that he is leaving the 250-year-old, artist-run institution to become the new director of the city’s Design Museum.

The high-profile curator and prolific broadcaster succeeds the architecture journalist turned museum director Deyan Sudjic and his co-director Alice Black, who announced they were stepping down last week. Together, the duo oversaw the Design Museum’s move in 2016 to a 1960s Modernist building in the heart of an upmarket neighborhood in Kensington. Both proved noticeably media shy last year when faced with a protest by designers and artists upset that the Design Museum was hosting a private reception for an arms dealer while their politically engaged works were on view in the galleries nearby.

Marlow’s ability to work with artists will be an asset in building (and mending) bridges with those who were alienated by the Design Museum directors’ decision to accept money from such a controversial source. The museum’s chairman is the Labour politician Peter Mandelson, who has faced criticism for his previous role as director of a Russian conglomerate with financial stakes in the country’s defense industry.

Marlow joins at a critical time for the Design Museum, which must be as entrepreneurial, if not more so, than the RA. Both institutions have doubled their physical footprints in recent years, increasing overheads considerably. Unlike the RA in its expanded home in Piccadilly, which opened last year, the Design Museum has yet to fully find its feet in its new space in the former Commonwealth Institute, which overlooks Holland Park.

Peter Kennard removed his work from the Design Museum in solidarity. Photo by Kristian Buus.

The outgoing artistic director is among a wave of recent departures from the RA. The academy’s outgoing president, the artist Christopher Le Brun, announced he would step down last month, and its former chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith, who departed last year and is now a director of BlainΙSouthern gallery. The RA’s head of collections, Maurice Davies, also quietly departed over the summer.

In a statement, Marlow said that becoming the chief executive and director of the Design Museum “was a challenge I have found impossible to resist.” One of those challenges will be navigating the increasingly treacherous waters of corporate sponsorship and maintaining curatorial independence. Unlike at the artist-run Royal Academy, the Design Museum occasionally hosts exhibitions sponsored by the very same brands that are the subject of its shows.

Another challenge will be determining how far to expand the definition of “design,” and whether to stick close to the traditional canon of furniture, graphic, and industrial design. In 2004, purists objected to a show about the flower designer Constance Spry, claiming the museum was moving too far away from serious design of manufactured objects. (The designer and museum trustee James Dyson resigned in protest.) Marlow declined to say whether he planned to embrace fine art alongside industrial design, architecture, and film, as MoMA has done since the 1930s in New York or M+ will do in Hong Kong.

Since he joined the RA six years ago, Marlow has overseen the RA’s artistic program, which includes art and architecture, at a time of unprecedented expansion for the venerable institution. Blockbuster exhibitions under his watch have included shows of work by Ai Weiwei, Jasper Johns, and Antony Gormley, as well as the groundbreaking survey show of the arts of the Pacific, “Oceania,” and novel pairings such as “Dalí/Duchamp.”

The RA’s new chief executive, Axel Rüger, who arrived from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in July, praised Marlow’s energy and creativity. “I have very much enjoyed working with him and wish him every success in his new role,” he said in a statement.

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