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Will Gompertz, artistic director at the Barbican arts centre in London, has been appointed the director of Sir John Soane’s Museum in a surprise move. He replaces Bruce Boucher who retires at the end of this year after almost eight years in post.

Gompertz was appointed director of arts and learning at the Barbican in March 2021, later becoming artistic director. He joined the Barbican from the BBC where he was arts editor since 2009; prior to that, he was director of Tate Media for seven years. His publications include What Are You Looking At? (2012) and Think Like an Artist (2015).

His programme at the Barbican has included Differently Various, an exhibition in The Curve (until 6 August) produced in collaboration with the brain injury charity Headway East. Earlier this year however he was drawn into an anti-Palestine censorship row when Resolve Collective accused staff at the London arts centre of censoring a talk.

In 2021, the Barbican Centre carried out an extensive staff reorganisation following the publication of a book that included more than 100 instances of alleged prejudicial behaviour at the City of London cultural venue. Gompertz was at the forefront of implementing the organisation’s anti-racism plan, telling The Times late 2021: “It’s not lost on me that I’m a white, middle-aged, middle-class man, nor that I’ve had great privilege in my life. But I can do something with that privilege, help this institution become inclusive, diverse and equitable.”

In May, in an article for Prospect magazine, Gompertz was asked: “What is the greatest challenge facing the arts industry today?” He responded: […] it has to be cancel culture. The purpose of the arts is to question, challenge, reflect and enlighten… [With] the rallying power of social media, debate is being stifled by self-censorship and fear of disagreeing with the prevailing orthodoxy.”

Once the London home of the architect John Soane (1753-1837), the institution’s eccentric interior, held in affection by many museumgoers, is packed with his eclectic collection of sculptures, paintings and curios (the British architect built, lived and worked in the tall, stately buildings that overlook Lincolns Inn Field for much of his life).

The Soane, along with the Geffrye Museum, is one of the smallest UK national museums with central government funding, attracting a record 133,785 visitors from 2022 to 2023. According to the World of Interiors, “visitors flock [to the museum] for its architectural principles, its Neoclassical design and the dazzling theatre of its objects.”

When Boucher was appointed in 2016, Guy Elliott, the then chair of trustees, said that “he is… a respected scholar whose research is very relevant to our collection”. According to the museum’s 2020 annual report, Boucher’s salary was between £80,000 and £85,000; the same year, grant-in-aid funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport totalled £1.3m.

In the 2020-21 annual review, Boucher wrote: “Anticipating a post-Covid climate of some duration, our aim is to reconcile ambition with financially sustainable funding. Whereas the dominant achievement of the previous decade was the physical renewal and restoration of the museum through the Opening up the Soane project, we want to ensure that our focus is on how we articulate, communicate and promote access to the museum and its contemporary relevance for today’s audiences and today’s world.”

Earlier this year, the drawing room at the museum, the oldest surviving example of its kind, opened to the public. Within the tight confines of the drawing office, Soane’s draftsmen and apprentices worked with Soane on the designs that shaped the neo-classical architectural character of Regency era London.

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