Interview with Nathalie Levi, new senior curator at Victoria Art Gallery

There’s been a changing of the guard in Bath’s cultural and heritage scene over the last year or so, with new faces bringing fresh ideas into the mix. The latest arrival is Nathalie Levi, Senior Curator at Victoria Art Gallery. Words by Emma Clegg

Victoria Art Gallery, run by Bath & North East Somerset Council, is an essential landmark in Bath’s cultural life with its exhibition programme and permanent collection of 14,000 pieces, including 1500 oil paintings and sculpture, works on paper, ceramics and glassware.

“I’m really excited about what’s to come, the impact that I can have, and being able to work with such a fabulous collection,” says Nathalie Levi, the new Senior Curator. She joined the gallery at the end of 2022 after the retirement of gallery manager of 26 years Jon Benington. There has been a significant changing of the old guard within B&NES’s cultural institutions over the last couple of years, with other new faces including Head of Heritage Services Robert Campbell and Roman Baths and Pump Room Manager Amanda Hart. Nathalie comments, “It’s like a new stage, lots of doors are opening, and people are very much open to ideas and change. So that’s been a really good environment to come into.”

Nathalie did a fine art and art history degree at Newcastle University, largely a studio-based course, and then a Master of Fine Arts in Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London. “My experience as a student made me realise that I didn’t want to just be in the studio; I wanted to be out there in the world sharing what I was doing. So I started organising shows for students and friends in the city. It was just so rewarding to see people coming and enjoying what we were doing, so that led to me to want to pursue it formally.”

Her most recent role was at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) in Bristol as Head of Programme Curator of Exhibitions. Has the shift in location been an easy transition? “I am still Bristol-based, so I feel like I’m getting the best of both worlds,” says Nathalie. “Despite their proximity, Bristol and Bath have very different identities, so it’s fascinating having worked in both. The astonishingly rich culture and heritage here in Bath does feel like something you need to really live up to if you’re part of the creative sector. Bath just feels incredibly special; there’s nowhere like it.

“Moving to Bath has been quite a big adjustment in terms of the gallery programme; I always want to make things as appealing to all kinds of cultures as possible, so it’s getting to know what’s right for Bath. I think the gallery has always done really well at striking a good balance between having a local appeal and making sure that’s maintained alongside a more international outlook.”

Achieving this balance has to be done within a post-pandemic climate that has seen the gallery’s visitor figures decline. In the year before the Covid pandemic, almost 190,000 visited the gallery, but it only attracted 40,000 people in 2021/22 and for 2022/23 the figure will be around 70,000.

“Visitor figures are a sector-wide issue, especially in cities that rely on a tourist crowd,” says Nathalie. “Everyone in the sector was hoping for a quicker recovery, but we weren’t expecting the cost of living crisis and the ongoing impact of Brexit, so it’s been a triple whammy for the cultural sector. That’s why it’s really important to look at how we can best serve the people who are here.”

There are about 100 paintings on display in the Upper Gallery, plus around 50 works on paper and 600 items of decorative art. Works from the collection are also displayed in the Guildhall and Pump Room. The programme is always seeking ways to get more pieces out for people to appreciate. Nathalie says, “I am really excited about working with a large collection and lots of the ideas I have for future exhibitions are based on the collection and using that in new and different ways, as well as bringing in more contemporary art.”

One of Nathalie’s favourite pieces from the gallery’s collection, Before Lockdown, 2019, by Shani Rhys James (b. 1953). © Shani Rhys James. Victoria Art Gallery, Bath and North East Somerset Council

One of Nathalie’s ideas for the future is to do a rehang of the Upper Gallery, last done 10 years ago. “If we can do this there are certain ‘old favourites’ that will stay on display, such as works by Thomas Gainsborough and Henry Herbert La Thangue’s view of geese in a country lane, The Watersplash, but other parts of the collection could be switched out for works that have been in storage for a long time.”

She also sees this as an opportunity to bring in some different perspectives and voices to the interpretation, and to look at historic works from different angles, with input from members of the local community, and the gallery’s cohort of volunteers and visitors.

There is a clear intention for the gallery and its exhibition programme to resonate with people of all ages and backgrounds and to be enabling and inclusive. “We want the gallery to feel welcoming to everyone, a place that different people can visit, and to broaden our appeal to the local community, including young people and families, and international communities as well.

“There are barriers for lots of people coming to an art gallery. For some it could just be that they can’t get across town easily, so we want to look at what we can do to take what we do out into the community. Artworks from our collection often go out on loan to exhibitions nationally and internationally, but we can also have our collection seen in areas closer to home – taking pieces out to inspire workshops in the community and delivering more activities for families and children, at the gallery and elsewhere.”

The recent recruitment of a new Community Engagement Officer will help achieve such initiatives and the gallery is also benefiting from two additional spaces in the Guildhall building: “We’re getting a new education space next to our permanent collection gallery on the first floor. It was originally set up for drawing and modelling – it has this beautiful glass-vaulted ceiling, and was part of the footprint of the original gallery. It will be used as a dedicated space for practical workshops, activities, talks and events and will open up later this year.”

There is a smaller room next to this one, which will be used as a bookable quiet area, a calm, relaxing space where people can step aside from the fray to absorb and recharge.

Nathalie inherited an exhibition programme that was planned up to summer 2024. “It’s quite normal for a curator to arrive and realise someone else’s programme for the first year or two. And it’s good to arrive to a programme that’s already planned out a certain distance ahead, so that you’ve got time to do the planning ahead yourself,” she explains. “And there are some really exciting things coming up.”

From 1 July – 1 October comes Kaffe Fassett: Timeless Themes – New Quilts and Candace Bahouth: Enchanted Visions. “This is a really excellent summer show, a really vibrant riot of colour,” says Nathalie.

“Another exhibition that I’m really excited about is touring from The Hepworth Wakefield gallery, called When Dreams Confront Reality: Surrealism in Britain.” Running from 13 October – 7 January 2024, this is entirely sourced from The Sherwin Family Collection and shows the diversity of British Surrealism and European influences, with works by artists such as Eileen Agar, John Banting, Max Ernst and Man Ray.

The gallery shows many artworks from previous eras, but Nathalie explains that the collection also includes a significant amount of contemporary work, including works by Grayson Perry, Shani Rhys James, Peter Randall-Page and Sophie Ryder

The gallery shows many artworks from previous eras, but Nathalie explains that the collection also includes a significant amount of contemporary work, including works by Grayson Perry, Shani Rhys James, Peter Randall-Page and Sophie Ryder, and extending this is an important emphasis for the future.

“I was always interested in both historical and contemporary art and although as a student much of my work was­­­­ conceptual, it was done in the context of thinking about wider issues and society. I knew that I wasn’t working in isolation of what was happening before and after me, and I think that’s very similar to how you think curatorially; you don’t put an exhibition together in a vacuum. That’s why I like to think holistically as a curator, because everything was contemporary at the time it was made and things that might not look very radical or experimental to us now really were at the time.

“That’s where you do a good job in an exhibition where you bring those insights in. And as I’ve grown into the profession, it’s been important to think more about the people that you want to bring into exhibitions, and not solely about the message that you want to put out. If you’re only doing one or the other, you’re not doing it properly.”

Visit Victoria Art Gallery to see the Bath Society of Artists 118th Annual Exhibition, which runs until 24 June. Collection tours also take place each month at 12pm (see website for dates). You can also see over 750 oil paintings and sculptures in the collection on the Art UK website (­­