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Nicholas Cullinan’s grand plan for the National Portrait Gallery

5 July 2017

Recently announcing a major redevelopment of the National Portrait Gallery, director Nicholas Cullinan expressed the intention of making the museum a ‘truly national gallery for all’. In the same vein, he talked of an ‘urgent job to do’ of ‘understanding our national identity’. With the UK General Election fresh in our minds, we might be forgiven for hearing the hollow ring of political rhetoric in these phrases.

It’s easy to be cynical. ‘Whose nation?’ some might ask. For example, Scotland has its own National Portrait Gallery, located in Edinburgh. And the announcement of £9.4 million of Heritage Lottery Fund money going towards London’s already over-endowed cultural sector might prompt some to wonder how this represents a benefit ‘for all’. But examining the NPG’s development plans in more detail reveals that it is exactly questions like these that are driving the way Cullinan and his colleagues are thinking about the future mission of the gallery.

Brexit, nationalism, the tension between the capital and the regions, and, since the election, the new prominence that Northern Ireland has in UK politics, are all aspects of what could be described as, without too much exaggeration, a national identity crisis. For Cullinan this represents an opportunity, a special moment when the NPG can step forward to play a more conspicuous role in provoking and shaping discussions around national culture and identity, and promoting renewed appreciation and understanding of who we are and how we represent ourselves.

So what exactly are the NPG’s plans and how might they enable it to become a ‘truly national gallery for all’? The expected cost of the project is £35.5 million, towards which the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded £9.4 million. A grant of this size represents an important endorsement of the proposals and makes it much more likely that the scheme will now go ahead. A further £7 million of funding has already been pledged by other donors, leaving £19.1 million to be raised by March 2019. If all goes to plan, building work will start in 2020 and will be completed by 2022. It is an ambitious time-scale, in keeping with the sense of urgency conveyed by Cullinan in the press statement.

Exterior of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Image courtesy the National Portrait Gallery

Exterior of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Image: courtesy the National Portrait Gallery

The capital part of the project involves a comprehensive overhaul of the museum, including a 20 per cent expansion of public and gallery space within the building. But given equal if not more weight in the press announcement is a parallel set of proposals which are all about reaching out beyond the NPG’s London base to develop new and more diverse audiences. These plans include a nationwide schools programme and extensive new collaborations and partnerships with other museums and galleries around the UK. The emphasis is on sharing the NPG’s assets, in terms of its collection, but also its expertise and curatorial skills.

There will be a focus on engaging with younger audiences, with the intention of reaching 200,000 school children across the UK and 300,000 young people not in education or employment. It will be a big commitment, and one of the challenges for Cullinan and his team will be balancing the demands of running an outward-looking activities programme with the day-to-day management of a major capital project at home. The latter will inevitably cause a lot of disruption, given the compact layout of the NPG.

Those who know the St Martin’s Place building will wonder where the extra 20 per cent of gallery space will be found. It turns out there is a whole suite of rooms available, known as the East Wing, which were part of the public galleries in the 1960s, but are currently used for administration. This wing will be reintegrated into the gallery, the main entrance will be improved, and a state-of-the-art learning centre will be created with a number of studio spaces. The rest of the gallery will be substantially refurbished and modernised with a comprehensive redisplay of the collection.

Nicholas Cullinan was appointed just over two years ago, and this is exactly the sort of project for a young and ambitious director to make his mark on the institution and create an enduring legacy of his time in charge. But the transformation Cullinan wants to bring about amounts to more than bricks-and-mortar: he talks of shifting the profile and public perception of the gallery. Though it is loved by many, the NPG is often (unfairly) regarded as a second-tier institution, on the periphery of national cultural life, and perhaps even a touch ‘establishment’ in its approach. It is these attitudes he hopes to change, and the education and national programmes are key to achieving this.

Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: <span class="caption-credit">© Chris Floyd</span>

Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: © Chris Floyd

Cullinan stresses that he wants the national programme to be a genuine dialogue, responding to local initiatives rather than being a ‘national story’ dictated from the centre. Portraits will be lent back to places they were made, or where the sitter is from, to promote local history projects. The gallery will also continue to expand the terms of what we think of as portraiture, embracing more film and digital work, for example. At the other end of the historical range, the gallery is acquiring popular, ephemeral and non-traditional forms of portraiture, much of it pre-1600, in a variety of media such as seals, memorial brasses, ceramics, jewellery and wood carvings. Supported by a New Collections Award from the Art Fund, this initiative will enable the NPG to explore the ways identity was understood and expressed outside the culturally elite practices of painted portraiture.

Modernisation, new media, appealing to new audiences – there is much here the more traditionally minded of the NPG’s loyal supporters might find unnecessary and unwanted. Refurbishment of the gallery has the potential to upset people too, if the visiting experience is significantly diminished. A more provocative engagement in debates around questions of national identity will inevitably court controversy. All of this presents risks: the gallery may find it raises its profile, but not necessarily for the right reasons. But the project is in tune with the mood of the times, and there are clear opportunities for the NPG to exploit. Overall, the combination of revitalising the gallery, while simultaneously engaging with wider audiences through education and national programmes, seems a well-judged approach.