Flexibility and speed are key to partnerships

Tim Reeve, Issue 118/01, p17, 01.01.2018
Our short-term, fleet-of-foot partnerships enable us to work where it is most necessary, timely and valuable
November can be challenging for commuters in the UK. The days are shortening, the pre-Christmas frenzy is under way, and leaves on the track are disrupting morning journeys.

So, it was a timely privilege to make a brief escape to the United Arab Emirates for the much-anticipated opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Like almost everyone, I was struck by the statement of intent that Jean Nouvel’s breathtakingly ambitious building represents. Sheltering a pristine medina and extraordinary collection beneath its vast lattice canopy, it is attaining the global status it sought. The scale and finish speak of permanence; very much a new universal museum that’s here to stay.

While a project of this scale is likely – for now – to be rare, established museums have, for years, been expanding their international partnerships, activities and programmes, and experimenting with different models for how to broaden their brands as part of a global cultural market.

Last month, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) launched its first international gallery, as part of the new cultural hub, Design Society in Shekou, Shenzhen. In many ways, this pioneering partnership – the first of its kind between a UK museum and a Chinese state-owned company – is our own statement of intent, and the most ambitious international collaboration in our history. It is a milestone for our international engagement, a chance to share our collections and expertise, and to research and learn from a dynamic emerging design industry. It offers a contrasting model for collaboration that emphasises responsiveness and relevance.

There are obvious reasons why extending the V&A family overseas makes sense: our reach and the diversity of our audience expands; more of our collections go on public display; we share our world-class expertise and passion for design education with others; and we secure much-needed income on which our work and staff depend. However, truly relevant local partnerships also deliver in other, equally valuable ways; feeding perspective, knowledge and insight back into our core collection and programme and, in the case of Design Society, resulting in 45 new acquisitions for our permanent collection (including the version of We Chat – China’s largest social media platform – that is now on display in South Kensington).

As China’s shift from a centre of manufacturing to a design economy gathers pace, it is fitting that we are embedded in Shenzhen – one of the world’s fastest-growing technology and design cities. It is exactly where we – the world’s leading museum of art, design and performance – should be in 2018. But in five or 10 years’ time? Who knows?

Our short-term, fleet-of-foot partnerships enable us to work where it is most necessary, timely and valuable to us and to our partners. Free of a dependence on large-scale capital projects, we can engage where the action is, quickly. With the UK’s relationship with the world in flux, flexibility is an asset, and renewed cultural dialogue and entrepreneurship is vital.

Tim Reeve is the deputy director and chief operating officer at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London


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18.01.2018, 18:11
How lovely to sit in the cold and dark and read Mr Reeve bragging about his foreign trips to sunny places. I can't help thinking that writing about such trips, indeed even taking these trips, clearly displays the disconnect between our national museums and what is happening in the wider sector. How does Mr Reeve think those of us working with budget cuts and closures are likely to respond to these high budget jaunts? If these trips are possible perhaps we should look at redistributing some of the V&A's cash to smaller museums in need? Now that would demonstrate flexibility in partnership working!

It's also interesting to see that the V&A, along with many of the other nationals, are keen to form partnerships overseas, but less forthcoming when it comes to partnering with smaller museums in the UK. Even getting a simple loan can often be nigh on impossible! Flexibility in partnerships? Pull the other one!