in other words

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

#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.”

Click here for the full transcript.

Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.

I’m your host Charlotte Burns and today I’m joined by Nicholas Cullinan, who has been the 12th director of the National Portrait Gallery in London since 2015—which is a museum where he had previously worked as an assistant when he was a student just 15 years before.

“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.” — Nicholas Cullinan


Nicholas Cullinan

director, National Portrait Gallery

Nicholas Cullinan took up his position as the Director of the National Portrait Gallery in spring 2015. Since his appointment, Nicholas has curated the Gallery’s Michael Jackson: On the Wall exhibition, which explores the influence of Jackson on some of the leading names in contemporary art.

Nicholas was previously Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and prior to this, from 2007 to 2013, Nicholas was Curator of International Modern Art at Tate Modern where he co-curated an exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs with Sir Nicholas Serota in 2014. Nicholas received his BA, MA and PhD in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Fellowships he has held include the Hilla Rebay International Fellowship at the Guggenheim museums in Bilbao, New York and Venice and the Thaw Senior Research Fellowship at The Morgan Library and Museum, New York.

Charlotte Burns

executive editor of In Other Words

Charlotte Burns is the editor of In Other Words, our weekly newsletters and podcasts. She was previously the US news and market editor for The Art Newspaper, as well as a regular correspondent for publications such as the Guardian and Monocle. Previously, she worked with the London dealer Anthony d’Offay on special projects. For several years, she was a consultant at the cultural communications agency, Bolton & Quinn. She also worked at Hauser & Wirth in London.

Burns received a Masters degree (with Merit) from the Courtauld Institute in Art and Cultural Politics in Germany, 1890-1945, as well as a first-class B.A. honors degree in English and History of Art from Birmingham University. She moved to New York in 2010.

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Behind the Scenes with Nicholas Cullinan and Charlotte Burns

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