Strong, Roy C.

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Strong, Roy C.
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Overview

Director of the (British) National Portrait Gallery and controversial director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1974-1987. Strong gained a first in history at Queen Mary College. He received a scholarship to research a doctorate on Elizabethan court pageantry. In 1959 he joined the National Portrait Gallery, London and by 1966 was appointed director. He married the theatre designer Julia Trevelyan Oman in 1971. Always a dandy and now armed with a pedigree for the fashion set, Strong embarked upon a mixture of snobbery and populism that marked his museum administration. One famous slogan was, "Martinis with the Bellinis." In 1974, at age 38, he succeeded John Pope-Hennessy as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in a controversial decision. The two men could not have been more different; both their subsequent memoirs made it a point to deprecate the other. Though Strong's appointment was initially a popular with the V&A staff, Strong was aloof and irascible. He cancelled redevelopment plans for the Museum, a huge moral blow to the staff. Though he appointed new department heads, it was not overall enough to turn the museum around. The new Labour government insisted that the civil-service-run museum cut its staff by 25%. Rather than cut departments broadly, Strong gambled by closing the circulation department of the museum, which lent works to other institutions. Other cuts instituted by Strong included closing the Museum on Friday. In retaliation to another (Labour) government initiative, the wealth tax, Strong launched the exhibition "The Destruction of the English Country House 1875-1975," a polemic against the government. In 1983 the new Henry Cole wing opened, and the Museum achieved the long-deserved independent status, removing it from the department of education and science, and giving it a board of trustees. Strong, however, argued with the trustees from the first. At a dwindling of attendance numbers, Strong introduced voluntary admission charges to the Museum in 1985, a controversial move. The Museum continued to lose money and now attendance as well and, many thought, losing sight of the populist mandate with which the Museum had been created. Though Strong irritated politicians, advisory councils and trustees, he understood the media. He perfected the blockbuster exhibition, "The Destruction of the Country House" and "The Garden" were huge successes. Strong created the Friends of the V&A [support group] and brought new external money in. Eventually, his disagreements with the board of trustees resulted in his resignation from the V&A in 1987. Strong was succeeded by Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, who further consolidated the Museum staff. His predecessor, Pope-Hennessy, described his tenure as "a 13-year regime that reduced the museum and its staff to a level from which it will not recover for many years."

Sources
Hewison, Robert. "A Strong Case for Revenge." The Times (London), May 4, 1997; Bayley, Stephen. "Vitrol & Ambition: It's One of the World's Great Museums [etc.]." The Independent (London), July 28, 2000, p. 1.