Sir Alan Bowness, director of the Tate in the 1980s who added to the collection and expanded the galleries – obituary

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Bowness: believed that the government had a moral duty to support the great national collections - John Dempsie/ANL/Shutterstock
Bowness: believed that the government had a moral duty to support the great national collections - John Dempsie/ANL/Shutterstock

Sir Alan Bowness, the former director of the Tate Gallery who has died aged 93, refused to be daunted by a shortage of public funding and oversaw the expansion of the main gallery at Millbank, the creation or initiation of new galleries in the regions and a significant acquisitions programme; not least, he was responsible for establishing the controversial Turner Prize.

During his eight years as director, from 1980 to 1988, Bowness presided over the completion of the Clore Wing dedicated to the work of J M W Turner and was responsible for the creation of the new Tate outpost at Liverpool’s Albert Dock, both projects being achieved through gifts from charitable trusts.

At a time when the public grant to the Tate was capped, Bowness encouraged the funding of exhibitions by corporate sponsors and established new US-style supporters’ groups. He also paved the way for the creation of Tate St Ives by forming links with the Cornish town through taking over the management of the Barbara Hepworth Museum.

Bowness, director of the Tate Gallery, mingling with art students protesting against cuts to educational grants in 1984 - Shutterstock
Bowness, director of the Tate Gallery, mingling with art students protesting against cuts to educational grants in 1984 - Shutterstock

Bowness hoped that the Turner Prize would do for contemporary art what the Booker Prize had done for the contemporary novel. From the moment the first prize was awarded to Malcolm Morley in 1984, it excited controversy, yet the attendant publicity helped to widen the audience for contemporary art and by 1987 the Tate had become the fifth most visited tourist attraction in London, overtaking the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Bowness’s skill in attracting private sponsorship should have endeared him to Margaret Thatcher. But his nonconformist socialist background and his belief that the government had a moral duty to support the great national collections, meant that he found himself out of step with the political climate of the times.

Matters came to a head in 1984 after Peter Palumbo, the Thatcherite property tycoon and Tate trustee and benefactor, was appointed chairman designate in succession to Lord Hutchinson. Palumbo craved a more “hands-on” role for the trustees and asked for an office in the Tate, which Bowness refused. Later, Palumbo hosted a dinner at the Tate for Mrs Thatcher during which he (allegedly without having consulted Bowness) offered the Prime Minister the loan of works from the Tate collection.

Stung into retaliation, Bowness sent Palumbo a personal letter setting out the correct procedures governing the director-trustee relationship, but was furious when the letter was circulated to the other trustees.

He was even more angry when Palumbo gave an interview about his “plans” for the Tate in which he described the gallery as “dull, turgid, unimaginative and badly done”, criticised Bowness for buying “too much fashionable work at very high prices” and promised that his first act as chairman would be to institute a meeting of trustees which the director would not attend.

Bowness, as director of the Henry Moore foundation, with a sculpture called King And Queen, 1992 - Andrew Taylor/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Bowness, as director of the Henry Moore foundation, with a sculpture called King And Queen, 1992 - Andrew Taylor/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Palumbo’s interview (which he claimed had been off-the-record) led to a written ultimatum from Bowness demanding that the trustees disclaim Palumbo’s views publicly, and in which he also made clear that he would be unable to work with a chairman capable of such an attack. He assumed that his letter would force Palumbo to stand down, but in the event he had to threaten his own resignation to get Palumbo to go. Bowness’s relationship with the trustees remained a difficult one and in 1987 he announced he would be retiring to take up a directorship of the Henry Moore foundation.

The descendant of two generations of teachers, Alan Bowness was born on January 11 1928 and was educated at University College School, London, at Downing College, Cambridge, and at the Courtauld Institute. A conscientious objector, he did his National Service after the war with the Friends Ambulance Unit and the Friends Service Council.

In the 1950s he worked for two years as a regional arts officer for the Arts Council and in 1960, after being appointed lecturer in 19th and 20th century art history at the Courtauld, joined the Council’s arts panel, which he eventually chaired.

He was active as an art critic and served on international arts juries as well as on the executive committees of the Contemporary Arts Society and the Fine Arts Advisory Committee of the British Council. In 1973 he helped to form the Association of Arts Historians. At the Courtauld, he rose to deputy director, receiving a personal chair in the History of Art from the University of London.

Bowness took over at the Tate from Norman Reid in January 1980 having been appointed from a shortlist of six. During the 1960s and 1970s he had helped to curate several exhibitions at the gallery including Painting and Sculpture of a Decade 1954-64, which captured the new liveliness of the British art scene and had a profound influence.

Bowness was familiar to the Tate, too, for other reasons. In 1957 he had married Sarah, one of the daughters of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. Hepworth died in 1975 aged 72, and in her will she asked that her studio be turned into a museum. However, family requests for public subsidy to run it were turned down, and for five years Hepworth’s family ran it on their own.

Within a year of Bowness’s appointment as director, the Tate took over the Hepworth Museum, leading some to suggest that he had used his influence to push the interests of his family. This was unfair, as the crucial decisions had been taken under his predecessor Norman Reid, a co-executor of her will.

Bowness sought to increase the historic breadth of the Tate’s collection and acquire major modern, particularly figurative, works. Major additions included Kirchner’s Bathers at Miritzburg, Max Beckmann’s Carnival, Picasso’s Nude Woman with a Necklace and Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, as well as works by Miró, Dalí, Delvaux, Derain and Brancusi.

The historical collection acquired works by Blake, Gainsborough, Millais and Constable. At the same time, Bowness successfully negotiated the transfer to the Tate of the V&A’s British and foreign sculpture from the post-Rodin period.

Bowness’s commitment to accessibility was shown in a Sculpture for the Blind exhibition and a “painting event” sponsored by Winsor and Newton –one of several sponsorship agreements made under Bowness’s directorship.

Plans for the new Clore Gallery, which opened in 1987 had been agreed by Norman Reid. However it was Bowness himself who got government backing for a new gallery in a converted 19th-century warehouse in Liverpool. Attendances at the new gallery, which opened in 1988, exceeded all predictions, andby the time Bowness retired, plans were also afoot to build a new gallery at St Ives, which opened to huge acclaim in 1993 under his successor Nicholas Serota.

Bowness had planned, after his retirement, to settle down to writing the authorised biography of Barbara Hepworth, but was persuaded by Henry Moore’s widow Irina to become the director of the Henry Moore Foundation, of which he had been a trustee since 1984.

The job became more burdensome than he had anticipated when Moore’s daughter, Mary, began litigation over the terms of her father’s will, claiming ownership of some 350 of the 700 sculptures in the foundation’s collection. In the event her case was rejected, but only after years of aggravation for Bowness.

Bowness was appointed CBE in 1976 and knighted in 1988.

With his wife Sarah, he had a son and a daughter.

Sir Alan Bowness, born January 11 1928, died March 1 2021