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40 Under 40 Global

Nicholas Cullinan

7 September 2017

39 | Director, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK

As a student, you were a visitor services assistant at the NPG. What did the museum mean to you then?

It was literally a job to pay the rent. But I used to love coming into the gallery to work on Thursday and Friday evenings, and spending hours looking at the paintings, studying them, reading the labels, teaching myself anew about British history – and talking to the visitors. It was quite funny coming back 12 years later as director. During the interview process, one of the tests was to show me images from the collection, to see if I could identify the works – and it turned out I could, because all those hours in the gallery had given me a pretty fair grasp of what we have. You never know where things will lead.

Your plans at the NPG include extending the collecting policy and transforming the building itself. What, for you, is the most important development?

We’ll be working on several things over the next five years, which are all intertwined. There’s a capital campaign to refurbish the building, but it’s not just about bricks and mortar: it’s about the building itself, which has a lot of potential, it’s about the collection and crucially it’s about the visitors. We’re also thinking a lot about our national programme, which is more critical than ever. We are a national portrait gallery, after all, and the people on our walls come from all four corners of the country. Right now, with so many discussions about British identity, and about nationhood and belonging, we ought to be especially relevant. But of course the thing that I’m most keen to focus on, as a former curator, is the programme, the acquisitions, the scholarship… all those things that make a museum sing.

How is your background in modern and contemporary art informing your approach at the NPG?

Although I specialised more in modern and contemporary as I went on, my academic background is in art history as a whole. Doing a BA, an MA, and a PhD at the Courtauld meant studying everything from antiquity to the contemporary. Many of the things I’ve done since have been about trying to make links between the past and the present – such as curating exhibitions like ‘Twombly and Poussin’ at Dulwich or ‘Unfinished’ at the Met. That’s very similar to what we can do here, because the collection spans more than five centuries.

You spent several years in New York as a curator at the Met. What aspects of the American museum system could European institutions learn from?

I grew up in the UK, but was born in America and have lived there at different points in my life, so I do have two different frames of reference. American museums are extraordinary, and do many things extremely well – scholarship, acquisitions, fantastic exhibitions – but they’re head and shoulders ahead in terms of fundraising. I learnt a lot over there about the best practice for that.

And what could American institutions learn from their European counterparts?

Whether they could or should learn isn’t for me to say. But what I love about the British system of running, governing and funding a museum – and this applies to many European museums – is that they really are for the public. The reason I work in museums is because I genuinely believe in their power to improve people’s lives for the better. That’s been the case for me, and I want to pass it on. The extraordinary thing about British museums is that they’re free: they’re essentially public spaces, where there are no physical or economic barriers and anyone can walk in off the street. That’s not to say there are no social barriers – there are – and we have to keep pushing against those.

You’ve curated many acclaimed exhibitions, including ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ at Tate Modern. What’s the secret to putting on a great exhibition?

To make an exhibition that’s successful, whether critically or in terms of attendance, you have to do something that you believe in: the Matisse cut-outs exhibition began as a private passion. When I joined the NPG, I asked each curator which exhibition they wanted to put on more than any other, because usually that’s what they should do, and what we should do. If curators work on projects they believe in, that will always come through to the audience.

Which cultural leaders have most influenced you?

The person that I’ve been most influenced by is Nick Serota, having been privileged to work with him for several years at Tate, including on two exhibitions. But I don’t just look to museum people for inspiration: I’ve been influenced by all the artists I’ve worked with, and have also learned a lot from people in other fields – such as Miuccia Prada. I think it’s very important not just to immerse yourself in one field. You need to keep hybridising, because that’s when interesting ideas take shape.

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