Nicholas Cullinan at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition Elizabeth Peyton Aire and Angels. Photo © Angela Moore. Artworks, left to right Mary Beale, Mary Beale, circa 1666; Gwen

‘We live in a time of heightened feelings and political debate. That’s no bad thing’

What is the role of London’s National Portrait Gallery in a confused and divided 21st-century Britain? As the venerable institution prepares to close for a three-year refurbishment, Robert McCrum talks to its director, Nicholas Cullinan

In the global art world, the National Portrait Gallery in London is unique, the quasi-imperial expression of a British identity. These days, directing such an institution requires a certain kind of stamina and cool. Dr Nicholas Cullinan, appointed director five years ago, was born in the USA but raised in Yorkshire, and he considers himself a bit of an outsider.

‘I don’t feel fully British, but I don’t feel fully American either,’ he says. ‘There’s a healthy detachment.’ On better acquaintance, he emerges as that classic British arts figure, the insider-outsider. This may give him the edge he will need when the NPG embarks on its long-awaited refurb. Cullinan is the man for the job, but he is readying himself for a bumpy ride in an old machine.

During my visit, Extinction Rebellion — tented and raucous outside in Trafalgar Square — added another frisson of jeopardy, serving as a reminder that this British landmark has a semi-political as much as a sociocultural role.

On the street, protests against the ecological crimes of Shell and BP morph into the ongoing assault on BP’s arts patronage, a hot potato for the director. Cullinan is up against it in other ways, too: the Scottish NPG has axed its participation in the BP Portrait Award. But he wears his responsibilities lightly, with a kind of exhilarated sobriety, as if he were still starting out on his career.

‘We live in a time of heightened feelings and political debate. I have no problem with airing these topics. If we didn’t, we’d become a kind of Beatrix Potter cottage industry’ 

From 2001 to 2003, while a student, he was a part-time visitor services assistant. ‘I’d finish at the Courtauld,’ he remembers, ‘walk down the Strand, and get changed into my NPG uniform.’ From 6pm to 9pm, he would roam the galleries, immersing himself in a glittering parade of British high achievers — monarchs, writers, politicos and dandies, from Henry VIII to Margaret Thatcher.

This experience came in handy when he applied to be director, as did the support of Nicholas Serota, but his impressive CV was the clincher. ‘I’ve always worked... a lot,’ says Cullinan, a modest summary of his roles at MoMA and Tate Modern, his Guggenheim Fellowship, and various lectureships.

Cullinan also spent 18 months at the British School in Rome. It was here, living and working among artists, that this would-be academic began to feel the tug of creative reality beneath the ebb and flow of his studies. He discovered that he ‘wanted to work alongside artists, and to make connections between past and present’. Later, he admits to ‘quite a traditional sense of public duty’.

Elizabeth Peyton, Raphael (Nick Reading), 2018. Collection Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg. © Elizabeth Peyton
Elizabeth Peyton, Raphael (Nick Reading), 2018. Collection Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg. © Elizabeth Peyton

When I mention Elizabeth Peyton’s portrait of him half asleep in his shorts, a charming and quite intimate study, some nervous laughter betrays an inner bashfulness. ‘I find it difficult to talk about, I’m embarrassed — no, I’m not — Elizabeth’s a friend. I’ve sat for her for a number of years.’ Another laugh. ‘I’m choosing my words carefully. I don’t normally let people see me in my shorts. All I can say is that it felt true in the moment.’

This Peyton portrait opens up the director’s well-defended privacy. What does he consider the best thing about being director? ‘It’s being able to make things happen as they should,’ he says. He points to the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters  show (which ran until 26 January) as a source of pride.

Cullinan’s NPG has been on a roll. Attendances are sluggish, but the gallery has just landed a National Lottery grant of £9.4 million to go towards architect Jamie Fobert’s scheme to transform the access and give the old place a facelift.

‘It’s a beautiful building that has suffered from benign neglect,’ Cullinan says. He wants to transform the gallery’s profile, adding, ‘We are just temporary custodians here. It’s about the institution, your colleagues, and the team. Nothing is mine, it’s ours — and, above all, it’s about the gallery.’

The NPG’s management and trustees have decided to close the gallery during the renovation, ‘having considered the pros and cons’, from 29 June. Cullinan recognises that this will be controversial. A few days after my visit, news of the NPG’s closure went viral, but Cullinan remained as resolute as ever. 

In an email, he reported, ‘Hundreds of works from our collection will tour the UK. We are calling for expressions of interest from organisations who might work with us during this time so we can make the most of this extraordinary opportunity to share the collection in new and innovative ways.’

The Bright Young Things at Wilsford by Cecil Beaton, 1927. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sothebys
The Bright Young Things at Wilsford by Cecil Beaton, 1927. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

He is planning a last hurrah before the gallery closes. ‘We have two really fantastic exhibitions opening this spring,’ he says. First up is David Hockney: Drawing from Life, which ‘focuses on Hockney’s depictions of himself and a small group of sitters: his muse, Celia Birtwell; his mother, Laura Hockney; and some friends’. The second will be Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things, ‘looking at the world of the 1920s and 1930s’.

Cullinan represents a generation of international high-flyers with ambitions that seem grand yet realistic. The space, he says, is ‘quirky, wonderful and very British. We are not trying to make it something it’s not. It will never be a cool, contemporary white-cube kind of space. 

‘We must do what we do with conviction and sincerity, and do it very well. There’s no point trying to compete with Tate Modern or Tate Britain. We are who we are, and we have to strike a balance. As director, you’re running a business. You have to think about your audience.’

The sirens outside sound like a symptom of the national nervous breakdown, but Cullinan seems unfazed. When the 2016 referendum result was declared, he was at home in Yorkshire. ‘I said to myself: “What does this mean for us?” 

‘I decided that it meant it’s all the more important to give our visitors a compelling image of what Britain is, and has been, and who it represents.’ He seems unworried that this might seem political. ‘We might not agree on our politics, but we can agree that we want this country to thrive and be dynamic. The NPG has a role to play.’

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Cullinan is alert to the complexity of his job during this moment of transition, of representing Britain’s past to a confused and divided contemporary audience in a time of change. Of the BP and Sackler controversies, he says, ‘We live in a time of heightened feelings and political debate. That’s no bad thing. 

‘I have no problem with airing these topics. If we didn’t have the debate, we’d become a kind of Beatrix Potter cottage industry. I don’t want to be provocative for the sake of it. Let’s look at things in the round.’

He contrasts Britain’s galleries with his experience abroad. ‘One of the reasons I came back to the UK,’ he says, ‘is because our museums are free.’ With some passion, he describes a regime — a mix of government funding and private patronage — that works for everyone. ‘We must be careful not to unpick this system.’

‘I love this country,’ he declares, in a final pitch. ‘I’ve chosen to live here, and what I want to do is to make the gallery one of the places you visit to understand our city and our culture. 

‘If, when you come to London, you have to visit the Tate, the National Gallery and the NPG as places where people think, “I’ve got to go there to understand Britain”, I’d be pretty happy with that.’