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Transcript: Norman Rosenthal on Seducing the Audience

Inside the recording booth, our guest Norman Rosenthal

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

Published
In Podcast Transcripts

“If you’re a freelance person, you are a kind of whore, but you can choose your clients”

“People thought I was either mad or corrupt, and I was accused of both. I was accused of madness and corruption.”

“The best dealers are nearly always ahead of the best curator. You name a curator who’s really made a really serious decision about ‘the future’.”

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns. Joining me today is Sir Norman Rosenthal, the British curator who was the head of exhibitions at London’s Royal Academy for 31 years, from 1977 until 2008, where he organized blockbuster shows from Mantegna and Botticelli, to the Aztecs, to the legendary “A New Spirit in Painting“, which introduced artists such as Baselitz, Kiefer, Polke and Richter to an audience beyond Germany, as well as the exhibition, “Sensation“, the 1997 show of works from the Saatchi collection.

Norman, which of the many exhibitions that you’ve organized have you most enjoyed, and which are you proudest of?

Norman Rosenthal: Well, I’m very impressed actually that you single out “A New Spirit in Painting” because most people don’t. But that is without question, I think, the most significant exhibition that, together with my late friend, Christos Joachimides, and Nicholas Serota and I put on at the Royal Academy in 1981. And I like to think that that exhibition both changed the art world in London, and also affected the world of art internationally. I mean, maybe I’m wrong, but anyway that’s the way I see it.

Britain was a very provincial art island which looked to New York, and Europe barely existed in those days. Nobody looked to Paris. Certainly nobody looked to the German-speaking world, to the Italian-speaking world, looked at Arte Povera, at the Transavanguardia later on. It was a world that was centered on London and New York with an outpost in Los Angeles. There was nothing else.

And I think what “A New Spirit in Painting” did was to begin to break open the art world—of course, thouh, we didn’t look in Africa. We didn’t look in Australia, in South America. But I mean it began the opening up of the art world. You know the whole idea of Joesph Beuys, who was of course another significant artist in my life. I helped stage the first big presentation in London in the ICA in 1974, which led to a spectacular, spectacular installation, which was called Directive Forces. It was an exhibition staged two years after Britain had entered the European community.

Joseph Beuys said to me: “Norman, can I have three blackboards? And I will happily engage in kind of critical discourse with the London public.” And so, where do I find blackboards and easels? I rang up one or two places, and I suddenly found a pile of hundreds—

Charlotte Burns: Did you find 100?

Norman Rosenthal: I found 100 more. I could have taken more but I found—I took 100 blackboards with me in a small little van to the ICA. When Joseph Beuys came, he decided to turn those 100 blackboards into this amazing installation, which was then subsequently seen in Venice and in New York and has found it’s resting place in the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin.

There’s no moral imperative to like art, but to be with art, whether it’s art or whether it’s literature or whether it’s with music–classical music, something that I personally am very keen on. It’s a wonderful way of living, and living your life. It’s a very enriching way of passing the few decades that you’re allowed on this planet.

And I just use art to express my love of art, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate that my career took me to this extraordinary platform called the Royal Academy of Arts that enabled me to touch so many different subjects. And I remember when I got my job—you must remember, I never studied art or art history.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, you studied history, didn’t you?

Norman Rosenthal: I studied history. But somehow, I was always interested in that terrible thing called culture, with a “K”.

Charlotte Burns: Was that because your mother used to take you to museums, didn’t she?

Norman Rosenthal: My mother took me to museums. She was not a specialist in any way at all. In fact, she was not educated in that world at all. But she, being Jewish and part of that what I call—there’s this kind of belief in culture in that kind of German, Jewish sort of milieu that she came out of, even though she was not in any way wealthy or anything like that. In fact, she had no money at all. But somehow, she would take me to Kenwood and to the National Gallery, and then we’d go to Lyons Corner House and have ice cream and chocolate sauce and all those nice things.

But you know, these things stuck with me, and by the age of 12 or 13, I was doing these things on my own. I was going to the National Gallery on my own, to all the Shakespeare plays that were being performed at the old Vic in those days. I remember seeing Richard Burton in all the great Shakespearian roles—

Charlotte Burns: Oh, wow.

Norman Rosenthal: —long before he met Liz Taylor. I remember seeing him as a fellow, as Hamlet, as Henry V and everything, and all the great histrionic roles of Shakespeare, and he was there.

Charlotte Burns: You were studying the emancipation of German peasants in Eastern Prussia in the 18th century.

Norman Rosenthal: I was a historian. I studied at Leicester University. It was a very good university. I had amazing teachers. And of course you must understand in those days, it was free. Not only that, you actually got a grant to live. I think it’s so tragic now what’s happening to the education system in this country.

Charlotte Burns: You must have seen so many changes in England, as well. Your parents came to England as—

Norman Rosenthal: As refugees.

Charlotte Burns:—in exile.

Norman Rosenthal: They were refugees. Again, what is happening on the refugee problem I think, in general, is—of course, migration is one of the things I want to write about. Joseph Beuys was very—when he talks about Eurasia, he is talking about migration. It goes from west to east, east to west, east to west, largely. All of these isles are really just—basically, we’re all migrants, whether we’re Anglo-Saxons, or whether we’re Normans, or whether we’re Huguenots, or whether we’re Jews, or whether we’re Pakistanis or whether we’re from the West Indies, you know what I mean?

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Norman Rosenthal: Well, that is the way of the world. The whole of the United States is a product of migration, for heaven’s sake. And look what’s happening in the world. It is absolutely tragical, and I think we’re living in a really terrible time now.

Charlotte Burns: What do you want to write about it? Do you have fixed plans or an idea?

Norman Rosenthal: I would rather write, then I’ll tell you what I’ve written about. But I’m quite interested—for example, I just saw the “Scythians” exhibition at the British Museum. It was a fantastic show, these amazing treasures from basically Eurasia. From there, as it were. Nomadic peoples. They were called Scythians by Herodotus, and they probably didn’t even think of themselves with that name. They probably were lots of different tribes, I’m sure. But I think looking at their iconography, I see lots of affinity to the world of Joseph Beuys, and that’s what I really want to write about as well, in a way.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting.

Norman Rosenthal: Much more, he tended to talk for various complex reasons about his Celtic connections. But, actually his origins in what you might call the East, in the middle of the Eurasian continent, are much more profound both in terms of his iconography and in terms—everything from the material like felt and the iconography of the deer. I just saw so many affinities, and I just want to kind of explore that a little bit.

Charlotte Burns: The thing with Beuys is that he’s a performer, and unless you get a sense of that—

Norman Rosenthal: But you can, with lots of videos. And the show in Berlin at the Hamburger Bahnhof about five years ago, I thought was magnificent. It had lots of amazing sculptures, but also a sense of performances through videos. And by looking at these videos, you got the sense of how he moved, how he was, what he looked like, what his aura was, how he dressed. He was an extraordinary, unbelievably compelling human being. Extraordinarily intelligent, too. He was incredibly well read. He knew science, he knew botany, he knew literature. He was a cultivated, extraordinary man.

I also have this fantasy that as a young man that he was probably—he was involved, not he might have, but well been part of the Hitler Youth. And I had this fantasy that if you really were to study those Leni Riefenstahl films very, very carefully, you might just be able to spot him in one of those terrible Nuremberg marches. But those were those days, and everybody was a prisoner of those times.

But I think he, after 1945, and after he returned to Germany, he somehow, his art is very much about—as is the art of Baselitz, as is the art of Kiefer, as the art of many German artists of roughly that generation, even though Beuys is much older, which makes a huge difference in that time because what one has to remember is the Nazi period, even though it was of unspeakable ghastliness, was only 12 years long, which is nothing in terms of a lifetime. Of course the destruction and the havoc that it caused, not only on Jews, and of course on Jews, but on just about everyone, the whole of Europe, in all sorts of unspeakably ghastly ways. It all took place in a relatively short space of time, in terms of human history. I’m not talking about universal history.

Charlotte Burns: While we’re talking about that period of history, I want to ask you your views on restitution.

Norman Rosenthal: I mean, basically I believe in a kind of statute of limitations on all these things. First of all, I think history is history. We can’t make things better. And you know, history just plays out in the way it plays out. I personally have no wish to kind of claim the properties of my parents, or I should say my grandparents. I would say that the restitution now in terms of the Nazi past is not really helping anything or anybody. All it does is to make a few rich people a little bit richer.

It’s a kind of business. It’s a rather despicable business, in my opinion. It’s like giving the Elgin Marbles back to Greece, and all this kind of thing. Giving, I don’t know, The Sistine Madonna back to the little church in Italy where it came from, or giving all the Italian art in the National Gallery back to Italy, et cetera. I mean the whole thing is crazy, this kind of nationalistic approach to art is not, in my opinion, very happy. What I think is now beginning to happen in the museum world, to the best of my knowledge, is that there’s less emphasis on the business of ownership, and more emphasis on the business of sharing through exhibitions and through lending.

The past belongs to us all. Looking after the artifacts of the past is a huge responsibility. I mean, property of all kinds is a burden, and museums, in the end, are kind of like cupboards, you know what I mean? With the contents of the cupboards you have to try and make beautiful things. And one of the beautiful things you’re able to do is sort of sensible exhibitions that can tell with genuine artifacts aspects of the great story of art and human civilization.

Charlotte Burns: One of the things that struck me about your track record at the Royal Academy is that you staged so many incredibly impressive exhibitions without having a collection to barter. How did you manage to pull in all those great loans?

Norman Rosenthal: Well, because London is an extraordinary city. It’s a great cosmopolitan city. It has great glamour. People like to be successful in London, whether its young artists, or you know it’s also, it’s about the way you do things. If you do things well, then people trust you. And actually, one of the most moving moments in my professional career was when the director of the Hermitage, when we were doing this big exhibition with my friend Nazan [Ölçer] called “The Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years“—

Charlotte Burns: You did that in a year, didn’t you?

Norman Rosenthal: We did that exhibition in a year, and it was the most fantastic show. And, you know, we had amazing loans from Turkey, which would not be possible now. I remember even meeting the current president of Turkey, [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan, in the Hilton Hotel, and he gave the show his blessing, which was quite significant at the time. But the show was a once in a lifetime show. And I remember going, sitting with the director of the Hermitage, and it was one of the most touching moments of my entire career when he said: “Norman”—when I asked for an impossible list of loans—and he said: “Norman I’m giving these to you. To you, Norman.” And it was—I nearly cried actually, because it was very, very moving to have these extraordinary exhibits from the Hermitage, which would normally never, ever travel.

Charlotte Burns: I just remember reading in an interview that you were in Turkey in some sort of downtrodden hotel negotiating for something or other, and that was at the same time that you were having a political situation at the RA in which you successfully survived an attempted ouster by the then secretary. You were sent a note, effectively a dismissal, as you saw it. And you responded by hiring Cherie Blair for legal advice.

Norman Rosenthal: I didn’t hire her. A friend of mine found her for me. I remember getting a telephone call from a great friend of mine, he said: “Do you know who your lawyer is going to be?” I’m not going to reveal to you who that person was, but he said: “It’s going to be Cherie Blair.” And so that was quite a little coup. But I mean one has friends. The great thing about the world of art is it engenders and allows for extraordinary friendships. And these friends—if they need to—do rally around, as I like to rally around my friends as well. I mean the art world is a real community, and it’s a very supportive community I think. I should say that this person at the Royal Academy was not from the world of art.

Charlotte Burns: It was an ex Goldman-Sachs banker.

Norman Rosenthal: Exactly, so you know, she didn’t really have a chance in that respect. On the other hand, in the end I did leave the Royal Academy. When I left—and I was asked to leave—I knew, and I was told I hadn’t actually—I was told that I hadn’t done enough planning because actually [there] was an exhibition that I did in Bonn about the art treasures of the old East Germany, the old German Democratic Republic which was a show that was in crisis and I was asked to rescue it. I called it “From Luther to the Bauhaus”. It was about the Protestant trend in German art, if you like, because of course it was in East Germany that Protestantism was discovered, but it was also in East Germany where the Nazis first gained a foothold.

Charlotte Burns: And what happened then? After that? You were working on a show—

Norman Rosenthal: And so, I was told I was wasting—I should be sitting at my desk, was in fact, because I should be preparing for planning the future of the Royal Academy, but in fact after I left they were still doing my exhibitions six years later. I mean, things that I’d set the ball rolling, let’s put it like that. So, that feels not very effective.

Charlotte Burns: Did you—

Norman Rosenthal: But nonetheless, can I just say, this is what I do understand: the privilege of having a life privilege that I had for working for the Royal Academy is something that I will be eternally grateful for.

Charlotte Burns: Do you miss it?

Norman Rosenthal: No, I don’t miss it anymore because I had 30 years of it, which was in the best years of my living life, obviously. And of course as I sometimes like to say: “You’re either a slave or you’re a whore.” I’ll say: “You’re a slave if you work for an institution, you’re a slave of the institution in the best sense of the word. You’re a loyal slave. But if you’re a freelance person, you are a kind of whore, but you can choose your clients.” You understand the difference? That’s what is kind of my philosophy having now experienced ten years of a free life. I understand that you get offers, and then you choose who you sleep with.

Charlotte Burns: Do you have dream shows? Do you have projects that you return to in your mind, that you think: “I’d love to stage this exhibition”?

Norman Rosenthal: Yes, I mean for example I would have loved to have done a great exhibition at the Royal Academy about tapestries and the history of tapestries, because if you think of the building of the Royal Academy, how—well, I had long talks, long before he became director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tom Campbell. And so, he was doing these two big shows at The Metropolitan Museum of tapestries. First on 16th century tapestries, then on 17th century tapestries. And they were fantastic. They were absolutely wonderful. And he is a great scholar in that department. And we were talking about a big show at the Royal Academy, and then he became director, then I left, and so the show never happened.

Charlotte Burns: What a shame.

Norman Rosenthal: But there are lots of shows like that. For every show that happens, lots of shows don’t. There are things, wonderful things, thought of that are wonderful things to do.

Charlotte Burns: You spoke earlier in the podcast about happy accidents, and two things spring to my mind. One is the gap in the schedule that led to the “Sensation” exhibition.

Norman Rosenthal: And also to “A New Spirit in Painting”.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Norman Rosenthal: Because what happened with the “New Spirit in Painting” exhibition was that just before going to the Royal Academy, I’d had this sort of job rescuing a section of the Kassel Documenta. That must’ve been in 1978. So, I became friends with the director of the Kassel Museum. It’s one of the great princely collections of Germany and very little known, and then the director said he was happy to send its highlights—100 paintings to London. It was all about to happen, and I made friends with the British ambassador in Bonn. I remember driving to the Kassel Museum with him. He pulled out the union jack on his car. And it was all going to happen. This was when I was coming to the Royal Academy, so I had this exhibition already in my pocket, this wonderful old master, because my dream for the Royal Academy was to revive the great days of the ‘30s, which I like to think in part I accomplished.

Just about nine months before it was about to happen, all the German restorers decided to make a big protest and say this is an absolute scandal that these paintings are far too fragile to come to London, blah, blah, blah. And so the show was canceled. So, I had to do something very quick, and I remember sitting in a room with Hugh Casson and Roger de Grey and Freddy Gore: “What should we do?” I said: “Go to New York. Go and see Leo Castelli, and Ileana Sonnabend, and then get together a nice show of Contemporary art.” I was telling you earlier about the business of how England believed only the Modern art came from New York.

But I’d already—when I was doing my show at the ICA, I discovered via my friend Christos Joachimides not only the world of Beuys but also the world of artists like Baselitz and Kiefer and Polke and Richter, and Lüpertz and all those other people, you know what I mean? And of course, the ICA being very small, I would have to do one or the other. So, I chose the Beuys thing. So, I suddenly saw an amazing opportunity to put that on the map at that moment. Also realizing that I would never be able to carry this exhibition on my own, I remember going to see Nicholas Serota, who at that time was director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery. I was going with my friend Christos to this restaurant in SoHo called Bianchi’s, and I said to Christos, “Not only do we tell Nick about this, we must ask him to join us. I will not be able to do this by myself.” And it’s true. If I had tried to do that exhibition on my own, I would’ve been thrown out.

Charlotte Burns: Why?

Norman Rosenthal: Curiously enough, all the so-called progressive artists of the Royal Academy at that time, even those who were in the show, were objecting to it.

Charlotte Burns: On what grounds?

Norman Rosenthal: Because they didn’t know. Art has to do with familiarity. It’s very easy to like Kiefer now. It’s very easy to like Polke now. It’s easy to like Richter and Baselitz because we know them. But at that time, they were so unknown, people thought I was either mad or corrupt, and I was accused of both. I was accused of madness and corruption.

Charlotte Burns: You had little patience throughout your career for pandering. I read a quote where you said: “Strictly speaking, all the academicians are equal, but it’s an open secret that some are more equal than others.” And you named Tracey Emin, Norman Foster, Zaha [Hadid], David Hockney, Gary Hume, Anish Kapoor, Tom Phillips, Richard Rogers, and Antony Gormley, who you called “the angel of the north chap”.

Norman Rosenthal: Did I? I can’t remember. You’ve done more research than I have.

Charlotte Burns: Throughout your career you were very focused on what you perceived to be the very best show. You wouldn’t make sacrifices or compromise.

Norman Rosenthal: There’s nothing else to do. You have to try and do your best. In the end, you do it for yourself. You try to please yourself in the hope that you will please others. And of course Contemporary art—it’s very easy to do a Monet exhibition. It’s difficult at one level: getting the loans, everybody applauds, you know. “How difficult. How clever you’ve been.” But when it comes to Contemporary art, things are much more open and speculative, if you like. You have to do the best you can. It’s like writing a book. You have to stick to your guns. Otherwise, you can’t live with yourself.

Charlotte Burns: Where do you look at art? Do you see a lot of new art?

Norman Rosenthal: I don’t look. I find. I very believe in not looking.

Charlotte Burns: What’s the distinction?

Norman Rosenthal: Particularly nowadays, the world is at one level very small. The world is also incredibly big. And there’s so many people now trying to make Contemporary art. So, the only way of dealing with it now is literally finding. Research doesn’t help. It’s about being around and looking and talking to people and meeting people, and trying to get a kind of consensus, you know what I mean?

For example, even this very evening I was going to meet with this guy who’s been stuck in New York. He’s called Alvaro Barrington, and I met him quite accidentally at Sadie Coles last year. I met him with my wife. Really a rather good sort of little exemplary story. And he was a student at the Slade. And he says: “Oh, I’m going with some of my students to the Prado next week.” My wife works at the Prado Museum. I will say Manuela was very charmed. But he’s an incredibly charming person. I went to visit him at the Slade, and I thought: “You know, he was a very interesting guy.”

Then, earlier this year—it was actually on my birthday—I was in New York on the eighth of November last year, and I was having lunch with this South American friend of mine, Mendes Wood, who has a very progressive gallery. He said: “Well, I’ll take you out for birthday lunch. But I’m sorry. This friend of mine is coming to my gallery.” Turns out, who should open the door: it’s Alvaro.” Turns out that Alvaro had this amazing exhibition on at PS1—already. A year after his finishing at the Slade. I changed all my plans the following day. I was leaving two days later. So, I went to see his show. He’s a most incredible painter. A most amazing artist. He’s coming to see me tomorrow. He’s got a show on in London, and I think he’s going to be signed up by a major London art gallery any minute now. Everybody’s after him. He’s a super talent.

Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting.

Norman Rosenthal: Yes. And you know, I can’t describe why. He reminds me a little bit of the Italian artist Alberto Burri, but also incredibly connected with what you might call ethnic America. And his paintings are phenomenally beautiful. They’re just very beautiful to look at.

Charlotte Burns: Will you be working with him on a show or a project of some kind?

Norman Rosenthal: I have no idea. No idea. I don’t have any plans. But he’s a friend, and artists, as I mentioned before, it’s all about—it’s a huge system of friendship. Sometimes there’s a bit of corruption there—or you could say there is—but actually most of the friendships are honest. Even with the greatest dealers.

Charlotte Burns: Most interviews with you bring up controversies such as the time you spat at David Sylvester. The fact that there’s still blood on the walls of the ICA after you were set upon by the actor Keith Allan. Do you look back on that with amusement or detachment or—

Norman Rosenthal: I think with detachment. You get over all these things. They can be quite dramatic at the time. David Sylvester was one of my best friends, but he was a strange person from another generation. But we made it up in the end.

Charlotte Burns: You mentioned earlier that you think that commercial dealers have often been leading the way.

Norman Rosenthal: Well, they always have. The best dealers are nearly always ahead of the best curator. You name a curator who’s really made a really serious decision about “the future” compared to everyone from the time of the Impressionists, from the time of Durand-Ruel, up to Kahnweiler to the present. The decisions, in terms of the value judgment decisions so far as they affect what I might call the public—and the public whether it’s the collectors or the museum going public and so forth—nearly all the decisions are made by dealers. Without that system, that world called the visual arts would not go round.

The wonderful thing, but also the tragic thing about works of art, is that they have, because they’re “unique”, they have in a way value. But this is not to say that music, and the music business in terms of pop music—huge sums of money are being made. The woman who writes Harry Potter. That Harry Potter lady is phenomenally rich. The other day I was in a restaurant in Suffolk and who should come in—and I’d never heard of him—called Ed Sheeran, is he called?

Charlotte Burns: Ed Sheeran.

Norman Rosenthal: Ed Sheeran. So, the waitress looked him up and he’s worth £57m, or he made £57m pounds last year. All these worlds make money. So, let’s not be hypocritical about the whole situation, you know what I mean?

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Norman Rosenthal: Art is entertainment, too. There’s no question about it. Art is entertainment, but entertainment in the best sense of the word.

When I do an exhibition, I like to make it in such a way that a young—when I certainly was at the Royal Academy I was very conscious that I did it. You have to seduce your public, and your public consists—you’ve got to think of the expert, because reputation is all and the reputation is through the experts. Not just the newspaper critics, but your peers as it were. Your different peer groups, but also you’ve got to seduce young people. All the education systems in the world will not pull the wool over the eyes. It’s got to be transparently obvious that the things are beautiful and things are wonderful and things are worthwhile, and that you have to do by good presentation.

Charlotte Burns: Do you feel the position of London changing with Brexit?

Norman Rosenthal: I think it’s too early to say. It really is too early to say. I mean, I’m not very happy about Brexit of course. I think it’s a bloody disaster. It’s this ghastly project that does really—it brings out the worst part of xenophobic Britain. The whole thing is basically about the right wing of the Tory party and the problems of the right wing of the Tory party had never got on with Europe because they think they’re superior and still have imperial dreams. They think the empire is forgoing. You only have to look at our foreign security to see that he has the kind of Winston Churchill complex, but not in a very positive way, actually. In a rather ignorant way, in my opinion. In my humble opinion. Be that as it may. This superiority complex, where the British are superior to every—

London is still a great city, for the time being. Things will not change that quickly. I don’t know whether I’ll be around in 10 years time to know whether or what the long-term effect is. London still has great galleries, still has great artists, great symphony orchestras, great singers, great musicians, great writers, great philosophers, you know. It’s still going. I don’t think that’s going to lose it that quickly, but nobody knows exactly. The difficult thing is always recognizing the—another little axiom of mine is to say, people say: “What is coming?” I have no idea what’s coming, that’s why I say finding is—finding rather than looking for things—is the important thing. Nobody can predict the future. The difficulty is to recognize the present. To try and recognize what is significant about the present. That’s the only task that matters.

Charlotte Burns: What are you working on now?

Norman Rosenthal: I’ve got a whole list of essays to write, and then I’m doing this exhibition in China. Five Chinese artists and five British artists on an island called Hainan. I’m doing it partly for the money, because they pay me well. That’s being sponsored by Hainan Airlines. It’s a big public art project that suddenly came my way. I have to say via Jay Jopling, and he asked me whether I would do this, and I met the people and I said I would. That’s a project that opens in the middle of March. Now, there’s been a few little problems but we have managed to iron them out.

I’ve got to do this show about Joseph Bueys. I’ve got lots of little writing projects to do. Everything is easy except writing. Writing is hard.

The other thing is, I’ve never done anything by myself. I’m a great believer of dialogue and conversation. One and one is always—as in marriage, one and one is more than two. It’s quite a good line to end on, isn’t it?

Charlotte Burns: Well, thank you so much for being my guest.