in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask
31 January 2019

#50 Expectations and Epiphanies with NPG Director Nicholas Cullinan

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

From ticketing scandals and the implications of Brexit, to a major £35m museum renovation, this episode of In Other Words features a frank conversation with Nicholas Cullinan, the director of London’s National Portrait Gallery, on a broad range of topics.

Cullinan discusses a recent attendance crisis at the museum, when faulty counters reported that visitor figures had fallen by 35% between 2017 and 2018. While the numbers were proven to be wildly inaccurate, the museum was blasted in the media, which suggested its contemporary program was out of touch with the public. In this episode, Cullinan counters some of the criticism: “Basically, you’re saying that we and possibly other British museums shouldn’t program contemporary artists or women artists if they don’t reach a huge audience. I disagree with that fundamentally.”

Cullinan talks to host Charlotte Burns about the implications of judging a museum’s success solely on attendance, a metric that is “both helpful and vital but should not be the only thing,” he says. “The key thing—in a way, the only thing that matters—is the integrity and the quality with which you do those projects. If we were doing exhibitions that we didn’t believe in, or were bad or shoddy or slapdash, that would be a concern.” 

Although the museum’s “entire remit is to serve the public”, it is 70% privately funded. Cullinan, who has worked within both American and British museums, talks about issues of funding in each country and ways to be innovative.

Recorded in London during a moment of acute political uncertainty, Cullinan discusses what it is like to manage a national museum in times of turmoil.  “I will really fight for the things I believe in and support them. I wouldn’t just abandon the ship,” he says. 

 “You have to have the courage of your conviction. Things are changing around us rapidly and radically, and people have very opposing views. But what we represent, and what we should communicate, is both a timeless and very positive message about British identity,” he says. “It’s very important to hold on to that. So, in a way, we’re doubling down right now.”


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Art Agency, Partners is a bespoke art advisory firm founded in 2014, and built upon decades of combined experience, to provide counsel to many of the world's leading art collectors and institutions on collection assessment and development, estate planning, and innovative approaches to museum giving and growth.

Editor Charlotte Burns