Figure 1: Nicholas Penny, National Gallery © Timothy Foster 2014

With the announcement of two departures in the high-profile museums that line Trafalgar Square in London, two of the most prestigious art world jobs are now available for the taking.

But, they will have trouble filling the positions of candidates of the calibre Nicholas Penny (The National Gallery) and Sandy Nairne (National Portrait Gallery).

I first heard Sandy’s voice at the Museums Association conference in 2012 in Edinburgh. He was asking a question to one of the panelists on stage, and his unique tone stood out from the crowd. I heard someone whisper behind me, “that’s the National Portrait Gallery director - he’s posh.”

Sandy may sound posh, but an institution that was basically a who’s who of the British empire turned into a forward-thinking mesh of the past and contemporary art under his command. The National Portrait Gallery is extremely interesting in its heritage. Walking through some of the permanent galleries is like a ‘Facebook’ of history. But what has raised exhibition attendance and has inspired even those who don’t like art was the voice Sandy brought to the table.

National Portrait Gallery permanent galleries

Figure 2: A ‘Facebook’ of history
National Portrait Gallery permanent galleries
Image Courtesy Image Source

The National Portrait Gallery hosts a prize for portraiture that has been sponsored by BP each year since 1989, but recently is has changed to include a popular Visitor’s Choice award. From 2002 when Nairne joined the gallery, the number of visitors to the BP Portrait Prize exhibition has more than doubled.  

In one year (2012, the Queen’s diamond jubilee) the gallery focused on Britain, but respected portraiture from all eras, exhibiting a sold out exhibition of Lucian Freud portraits as well as a more traditional exhibition of Elizabethan portraits in “The Life and Death of Henry Stuart.” This year proved the Director’s willingness to take risks, having shows like Freud that welcomed a quarter of a million visitors as well as niche academic exhibitions. (‘Henry Stuart’ only attracted under 30,000 visitors)

Sandy was working at the Tate gallery under Nick Serota before joining the NPG, giving him a contemporary twist on the older practices. He must have applied Tate techniques to the NPG exhibitions, as he attracted young contemporary artists with shows like “Commissioning Contemporary Portraits”, helped create blockbusters like the Freud Portraits in 2012 and David Hockney Portraits in 2006 but also held on to the traditional exhibitions that give national galleries an academic raison-d’etre.

I think ‘voice’ is exactly what national institutions need, and what they will have trouble finding in a museum industry that is becoming more and more monotonous. I choose the word precisely - because a blockbuster can create a lot of noise for an institution, but at times it’s less about volume and more about the memorableness of the voice used.

Having show after show put together a popular artist’s work in a chronological order is not what institutions like the NPG and National Gallery are here for. (sorry David Bailey) Interesting content goes beyond the cataloguing - bringing fantastic analysis to art history.

During his time as Director, Nicholas Penny changed the National Gallery from a prestigious name everyone notices in the art history books to an interesting changemaker in the industry. Saving the Titian from leaving the public eye, bringing Photography into the gallery for the first time in centuries (with the help of fantastic curator Hope Kingsley) persuading the British public of the artistic importance of Spanish baroque polychrome sculpture (again, curator Xavier Bray needs to be mentioned here), inviting a contemporary artist to work in the museum, and having the mother of all blockbuster exhibitions -  to name a few.

National Gallery Leonardo queue

Figure 3: The mother of all blockbusters:
Leonardo at the National Gallery
Image Courtesy The Telegraph Image Source

One thing that comes through in all of the work that Penny looked over, is a respect for the art and art historical practice in general. The gallery, spanning the size of 6 football pitches, feels like a coherent, bite sized overview of art from the middle ages to the 20th century. The Impressionists - undoubtedly the most popular time period - are respected as much as new acquisitions by Scandinavian artists that may be less known.

I don’t envy whoever takes over this job from these two giants. To gain respect from the media, academics and the public, and also make sure the gallery keeps a positive cash flow, is immensely difficult. More and more cuts in the culture sector mean the pressure is on to make shows that will sell. Though these two important institutions will never starve, the rich, unique content they would like to exhibit may.

Nairne and Penny’s opinions will no longer be heard through their influence in the public sector, but hopefully their output will now grow in the form of their writing, exhibitions and speeches. One has to wonder why these two white, male, Oxbridge trained directors chose to leave at the exact same time, and whether there is something hidden from the public eye. Though they will be missed, as will the original content they consistently promoted through their institutions, I am excited to see what new voices will emerge from this change.