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Transcript: Expectations and Epiphanies with NPG Director Nicholas Cullinan

Nicholas Cullinan and host Charlotte Burns

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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

Before we get to today’s episode, here’s a reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com. And now, onto today’s show.

Nick, thank you for being here.

Nicholas Cullinan: Thank you for having me.

Charlotte Burns: Today we’re going to talk a little bit about scandals, funding, expansions, renovations, Michael Jackson, contemporary portraiture and much much more. But, I wanted to start by taking us back to the beginning.

You were born in Connecticut, raised in Yorkshire and you received your BA, MA and PhD in Art History from the Courtauld Institute in London. You then had an international fellowship at the Guggenheim after graduating and before you went to the Tate, where you were curator of international contemporary and Modern art between 2007 and 2013.

You then went to New York, following Sheena Wagstaff to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to join her team as a curator of Modern and contemporary art at a moment in which that museum began a major push to become a player in the field. Now, you’re back in London.

How did you become involved in art?

Nicholas Cullinan: Well really, by chance. My parents would take me to certain museums when I was growing up. The museums that were closest to me then were Leeds and Manchester, and occasionally we would go to London as a treat but that wasn’t the norm.

But really where I began to think of it as a potential career was quite late in my teens when I was thinking about what to do. I still feel very lucky; I haven’t had anything handed to me, but the thing I was really lucky to have at a very pivotal point was this realization that this might be something that I would love to do, and that would perhaps stay with me throughmy life.

And I have to say, exactly 20 years later that still proved the case. Maybe we should check back in 20 years’ time if that’s still the same.

Charlotte Burns: So, you had an epiphany?

Nicholas Cullinan: Kind of, yes. I took a “gap year” as they say. But it wasn’t a glamorous gap year. I was working in Boots Opticians in Halifax at the time, mostly. When I’d earned enough money, I would take little trips.

One of those trips was to Venice. I remember going to the Academia Gallery, which used to be open late on a Wednesday evening. It’s not now. I was sat there by myself late on a Wednesday evening in the room for Carpaccio’s St. Ursula Cycle (1497-98). I was reading about those paintings, and especially about how John Ruskin became obsessed with them—The Dream of St. Ursula (1495) in particular, that canvas where she has a prophecy about her death.

Yes, it’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to an epiphany, where I just thought, “I want to study art history. That’s what I want to do.” For the first time, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I came back and researched where were the best places were to do it and I read about the Courtauld, which I hadn’t really heard of before apart from it being a gallery in London. I applied, and I had my interview about two months later. It all happened very quickly; I kind of stumbled into it.

Because it was such a kind of fluke accident and no-one growing up said you should think about this as a subject at university or as a potential career, I’m very keen now to try to spread the message.

I do a lot of work with a really great charity called Speakers for Schools, where people give talks in state secondary schools because the arts—and especially art history—is mostly not represented or taught there. It’s just to tell people about what I do, about museums, about the art world and about different options.

Charlotte Burns: That’s an area, there’s a whole world of opportunity that people may not know about.

Nicholas Cullinan: Yes, there’s a whole range of options open to you. One thing that’s very interesting is I think now, there’s so much pressure on young people to maybe not do humanities subjects—whether it’s English literature or history—at university because they’re not seen as being lucrative. Neither is the art world in particular.

However, it is an industry and if you do art history, you can therefore go and work whether it’s in a museum, or an auction house, or a gallery, or work with an artist, or become an artist or all of these things that are open to you.

One thing I have done in working with Speakers for Schools is to reach out to a number of people across all the so-called “creative industries”, whether it’s fashion or music, because right now those fields are perhaps not well-represented in talks to state students. We got 250 people to sign up and do talks, which over a number of years could perhaps make a difference.

It’s a very simple thing to do. It takes an hour max, but it’s really transformative. One thing I’m very keen to do is try and spread the message a bit because I found it really by fluke, by accident.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. That’s kind of an amazing story, Nick.

I’m going to take us somewhere different now, to talk about some of the shows you’ve got coming up. You have some exciting shows. You have “Elizabeth Peyton”, who’s going to be taking over the gallery for the first time in its history—

Nicholas Cullinan: Not the entire gallery!

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: Not the entire gallery, yes.

Nicholas Cullinan: Before we get headlines about “too many contemporary women artists in the gallery”.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: Now they’re running the show!

So, tell me a little about the Elizabeth Peyton, the Pre-Raphaelite show and the Cindy Sherman.

Nicholas Cullinan: Elizabeth I’ve known for a number of years. It seemed that she would be a very interesting artist for us to think about working with as perhaps one of the great contemporary portrait painters working right now. We’ve been quietly developing this project for a number of years.

I think what’s particularly interesting about contemporary artists working in the contexts of the National Portrait Gallery is the permanent collection. Rather than just isolate her work in a contemporary exhibition on the ground floor, we’re also going to take a number of her works and disperse them throughout a number of our galleries from the Tudors to the Victorian era, because I think it’s that dialogue where, in a way, we can do something different than say Tate Modern is doing, or the Whitechapel or any other number of contemporary—

Charlotte Burns: It’s a distinguishing factor, for sure.

What’s the plan with the Cindy Sherman show?

Nicholas Cullinan: The Cindy Sherman show is essentially a retrospective that will open this summer before travelling. We’re working very closely with her.

What’s quite interesting about that project is that it will be quite different from the North American retrospective from a few years ago, which was at MoMA and other places. I think Cindy now for the first time is quite keen to, as she said, provide a “dirtier account” of her work, so to show perhaps some of her sources, or sketchbooks or references—whether its Hitchcock films or Ingre’s paintings. There’ll be a number of works in the exhibition that will be in dialogue with her work.

Charlotte Burns: Another show opening this fall is an exhibition exploring the untold stories of twelve women who contributed to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Your program has over the last few years featured several female artists.

Nicholas Cullinan: Mostly female artists.

Charlotte Burns: Mostly female artists, definitely more than—

Nicholas Cullinan: In terms of the contemporary.

Charlotte Burns: In terms of the contemporary, absolutely. Well, you know, it gets a bit harder once you go backwards.

[Laughter]

Nicholas Cullinan: But not impossible, like the “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters” shows.

Charlotte Burns: Exactly. Not impossible.

Nicholas Cullinan: If you do the labor.

Charlotte Burns: Right, but it’s not going to be the majority.

Anyway, that’s quite interesting to me. Is that accident or design?

Nicholas Cullinan: It’s more accident than design. We would never program around a particular demographic, so we wouldn’t cynically say, “Okay, we need an exhibition for a female artist here or an artist of color.”

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Nicholas Cullinan: We program the exhibitions around the artists that we think are the most interesting, the most relevant. It just turns out that in terms of the contemporary, many of those artists happen to be women. I’m very proud of that as well.

Charlotte Burns: I want to talk to you a little bit about the expectations of exhibitions. This is tied to a scandal at the museum in 2018 which we’re going to go into. The way we’re going to go into this is by women artists—

Nicholas Cullinan: Good.

Charlotte Burns: —because two of the exhibitions that were part of this were “Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun”, one exhibition, and another one by the artist Tacita Dean. Both were very well-received exhibitions critically. People who saw them loved them—I happened to see the Tacita Dean during installation and I thought it was a beautiful, intimate jewel of a show.

However, they were written about as being among the galleries’ worst-performing exhibitions. The ticket sales were low—they were apparently some of the lowest ticket sales since the 1990s. In a way, it’s a disingenuous measure because of course, having gone to the Dean show, it was small. You couldn’t have had five million visitors in that show logistically.

There was this sense of pressure, or the sense that they had badly performed somehow. That was the reception based on the attendance. So, I wanted to talk to you about attendance.

Nicholas Cullinan: That’s very disingenuous because those exhibitions were never designed to be blockbusters. They were designed to be interesting and indeed, perhaps, even historic exhibitions.

For example, take “Tacita Dean”. There are two things that are quite interesting about that exhibition. One, it was the first exhibition we’ve ever done of film, of moving image. For example, in the 1960s Roy Strong—my predecessor who I’m having lunch with in about two hours—did the first exhibition of photography at the gallery, which was Cecil Beaton.

50 years later we did the first exhibition of an artist who works in film and video, which was Tacita. It seems to me that to be an institution which looks at portraiture and does not account for the moving image is a problem—

Charlotte Burns: Right, yes.

Nicholas Cullinan: —and that Tacita would be a great British artist to work with to confront that.

The other way that exhibition was historic was the way it evolved through collaboration with the National Gallery and the Royal Academy. It was the first time that a living artist has worked with three major museums—national institutions—to stage an exhibition which in this case, looked at her engagement mostly through film with genre whether it was portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, landscape at the Royal Academy or a still life at the National Gallery.

That exhibition was really important and historic. It was never designed to be a blockbuster. The way that you program exhibitions over the year at a gallery or museum is that you want to do some exhibitions which will have a larger reach, whether that’s things that we’ve done recently like Cézanne or Picasso or—

Charlotte Burns: “Michael Jackson [On the Wall]”, yes.

Nicholas Cullinan: You do some exhibitions which won’t reach such a large audience but are important because of your remit. If you didn’t do them, you would be actually abandoning key things that you are meant to be addressing or people that you are meant to be serving.

For example, sometimes we do historic exhibitions that won’t necessarily reach tens or hundreds of thousands of people, but if we didn’t do historic exhibitions, we would be really—

Charlotte Burns: Reneging on your remit to engage with the collection.

Nicholas Cullinan: Yes. So, in a way, when that article was written, and it was pitching “Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun” and “Tacita Dean”—three women artists—against blockbusters such as Cézanne or Picasso or white male artists—

Charlotte Burns: And “David Bailey”, fashion photography. It’s just a different audience.

Nicholas Cullinan: That feels very problematic to me.

Charlotte Burns: Why does that feel problematic?

Nicholas Cullinan: Because 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. I wouldn’t only want to do contemporary exhibitions, but it’s important that you do a range of exhibitions over a year.

Charlotte Burns: Part of the focus on these artists and the ticketing performances was to do with the scandal over attendance. It was falsely reported that visitors to the museum had fallen by 35%—

Nicholas Cullinan: Fake news.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: Well, sort of. It was real news but fake ticketing. It had fallen by 35% from 1.9m to 1.3m in 2017, and data for the half-year from May to December showed a more calamitous 42% drop.

Those numbers turned out to be wrong: there was a fault with the automatic people-counters. In a nice rebuke to technology and modernization, I think this was discovered through the manual counters in the “BP [Portrait Award 2018]” exhibition who were like “Wait, these numbers are totally different.”

It turned out there was a drop, but it was more like 10%.

Nicholas Cullinan: Which was in line with other London museums.

Charlotte Burns: In line with other museums, but also—

Nicholas Cullinan: Many museums in London have experienced a drop of around 10% to 20%, including us.

Charlotte Burns: You were part of a trend, especially among museums in central London. That was written about as being, maybe, something to do with the possibility of terror attacks which were very much in people’s minds at that time, the cost of going into central London—those kinds of factors.

The National Portrait Gallery was singled out by this point. There was a lot of conversation about the failure of the gallery to really engage the public. It was noted that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is the governmental department that looks after museums in the United Kingdom, was working closely with museums to better understand the recent decline.

Nicholas Cullinan: We work closely with them all the time and they were working closely with other museums, too.

Charlotte Burns: Right. Then there were various articles about all of this. There were corrections that were run when the accurate figures came out. Still, the conversation was around whether the National Portrait Gallery was doing the right thing—whether it was engaging enough with the public.

The Art Newspaper, which had broken this story, went on to suggest in an opinion editorial that it was your focus on contemporary art that was heralding a fall in public interest and specifically saying things like, “the audience isn’t really actually engaged with contemporary art. There are a few artists who really cut through and permeate, but contemporary art is more popular with the art world than it is with the general public. The museum has to balance this and be more publicly minded.”

To me, that seemed problematic.

Nicholas Cullinan: It is, and it’s not true either. For example, let’s take “Tacita Dean”—which again was never designed to be a blockbuster exhibition, but for us was a very important historic exhibition to do for all the reasons that I outlined. Let’s remind ourselves that [scandal] happened after “Cézanne Portraits”, which is one of the most attended exhibitions we’ve had and was followed by the Michael Jackson exhibition, which was actually contemporary artists but reached a very wide and diverse audience.

So, to only single out one artist or one exhibition and say somehow that it’s symptomatic of everything is quite reductive and distorting.

Charlotte Burns: That article came out around the time when there was a similar conversation going on around Okwui Enwezor, the former director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich. He’d recently left and there were a lot of different thing going on there. In a sort of exit interview with Der Spiegel he’d been asked questions by a reporter also looking at attendance. There was this sense that if you aren’t getting those blockbuster figures, then you are somehow failing.

I worked at The Art Newspaper for years and years. I was a total disciple of the attendance figures. I thought it was super helpful data in a world, an industry that doesn’t have much data.

I’m beginning to wonder if attendance is the best metric of success, because surely don’t we twist ourselves into a knot somehow? If attendance is a driver of funding, then maybe we just start programming the hits, with the people we know are going to get the bums on the seats, and we never ever stop having exhibitions of Picasso or Matisse.

Actually, that’s not even true because not all Picasso exhibitions are surefire hits.

Nicholas Cullinan: Exactly.

Charlotte Burns: How do you bring in those women artists? How do you bring in those artists of color if you’re expected to hit record figures all the time?

Nicholas Cullinan: With every single exhibition you do, I think the questions is balance. What’s important is both: obviously, attendance—the number of people that come to the gallery—but also, what they’re seeing there. Who is coming to the gallery is a key question. It’s not just how many people are coming to the gallery but who is coming to the gallery, and what are you doing to speak to different audiences?

I guess the question that raises for me is, when does popular become populist?

Charlotte Burns: That’s exactly what Okwui said in his interview. Especially in these changing and troubled times we live in, popular and populist are more dangerous. That’s a more slippery slope than it seemed to have been 10 years ago, even.

Nicholas Cullinan: There’s a great saying, which is “everything ain’t for everybody.” You would never do things that were deliberately elitist or trying to alienate people, but nor should you try to please everyone with everything you do all the time.

For example, the Gainsborough exhibition we have on now—which is a wonderful exhibition which has had great reviews—is a very classic exhibition for us to do. I imagine that many people who came to see Michael Jackson—a much younger, more diverse audience—aren’t coming to this exhibition. But then we’ll do “[Only Human:] Martin Parr” after that. Then we’ll do “Cindy Sherman”. Then we’ll do “Pre-Raphaelite [Sisters]”. We’re constantly changing in terms of the type of exhibition we do and what audience they will attract—in terms of who, but also how many.

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 that were bad or shoddy or slapdash, that would be a concern. If you’re doing things that you really believe in and that both your audiences and indeed, perhaps press and word-of-mouth is very enthusiastic about—even if the attendance goes up and down, or even if the exhibition speaks to one particular audience but less to another audience—as long as there’s balance, that’s ok. There’s nothing to worry about there. I think the more that we have a sense of balance and plurality, the better.

Charlotte Burns: It seems like it’s also an easy fight to say, “Well, it’s contemporary art.” Because you’ve never just shown contemporary art.

So, say you had had that calamitous 42% drop. It wouldn’t necessarily be because of your contemporary art shows, because you’ve never had that program.

Nicholas Cullinan: It’s not, because also, the attendance for the museum’s free permanent collection is different from the attendance to the exhibitions. Obviously at a certain point, those two things can overlap. For example, if you do a big blockbuster exhibition, you will often notice that overall attendance to the free permanent collection will also go up. But not necessarily. Sometimes you have exhibitions which are incredibly popular, but it doesn’t mean that necessarily those people are going around the permanent collection galleries. Again, it’s a little bit simplistic and reductive to put those two things together. You have to actually separate them.

The other thing is that in terms of contemporary artists and the fact that those artists have recently been women, we’re really proud of that. Again, it’s not something that we did deliberately. We work with those artists because we think they’re fantastic artists, not because they’re female or they’re artists of color. We work with people because we believe in them and we believe our audiences will also be inspired by them and believe in them too.

Charlotte Burns: That’s an enormous amount of pressure to come under. This idea that somehow during your reign, visitor numbers are almost halving. This is also happening against a backdrop of the increasing difficulties of funding, lack of government funding and pressure to find more private funding. These are troubled times politically that we live in so I’m assuming there’s lots of pressure everywhere.

Have you felt a pressure to stage more exhibitions by those surefire hits and fewer exhibitions of women?

Nicholas Cullinan: Well, you could feel that. You could feel that pressure. There’s a couple of things to say.

The pressure and the idea of this pressure is somewhat hyped up, because although that might be what certain newspapers are reporting—and of course they go for perhaps the maximum amount of drama—the people close to the situation, whether its DCMS or the trustees, understand the complexities of it.

For example, understand that other museums are perhaps also experiencing a drop in numbers. They go up and down every month and we all compare notes. This is not happening in isolation. If there’s less visitors to us, you can bet that often that’s the case elsewhere too.

There has definitely been a trend. I wouldn’t say the last couple of years attendance has been as strong as it was, say, the two years before, which for us were record years. We had our single best year in 2015/16.

Charlotte Burns: If you look back on those years they were years of more international optimism—

Nicholas Cullinan: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: —than we’ve been in the last couple of years.

Nicholas Cullinan: I would say the mood has shifted for sure. That’s perhaps affecting attendance to museums.

But just to go back to your question, in terms of the pressure, if you didn’t believe in what you were doing, and you were only responding to newspaper stories and what people were saying, then I think that would be a problem.

However, you always listen to what people are saying and you take things on board and weigh whether it feels true and well-founded or not. If you believe you have a responsibility to have a balanced program and to work with an array of different artists and subjects to speak to different audiences—as long as what you’re doing has quality and merits, I don’t think necessarily you deviate from it.

So, there is pressure of course, but I would never do things I don’t believe in just to appease.

Charlotte Burns: Do you think that attendance is helpful as a metric of success? Do you think that there are other ways of measuring?

Nicholas Cullinan: It’s both helpful and vital but also, it should not be the only thing.

Okay, attendance is important in two ways let’s say, for a British museum. It’s important because we exist to be open for free to the public and to engage the widest possible audience, so you would worry if you were only attracting a very niche, small, elite audience. That’s not what we’re there for. We’re not a private club. We’re a public institution. So, we constantly want to reach out to the widest possible audience, that’s very important. Again, it’s not just the numbers of people. It’s who.

It’s important financially because of course, if your attendance falls that can impact your budgets. Also, you want to do things that are being well-received, that are getting people talking and thinking, and a sense that what you’re doing has quality and merit.

It would be very easy if you only cared about attendance and nothing else. That’s a very easy program to put together. You basically just go for the biggest possible names with the most appeal, the most well-known names, even perhaps some artists that are less-liked by others but command the most recognition. It would be a super easy thing to do. But would it be very interesting? Would it be worthwhile? Would it contribute to a discussion? Would it help to educate and inform people? I’m not sure.

 You were also in trouble when you closed the gallery to the public to rent out space to the designer Erdem for a fashion show. The criticism here was that it was a public museum and therefore shouldn’t be closed to the public.

Charlotte Burns: Tell me a little about this.

Nicholas Cullinan: Unlike other museums in London, we’ve never staged a fashion exhibition. And many museums do this during London Fashion Week, which is a way to bring in income and also is a collaboration with another creative field.

This offer came through and we’d never done it. Also, we’re quite physically a small museum. We don’t have wings that we can isolate and separate, so you can’t do it in one wing and keep the other wings open. Whatever you do tends to impact on the entire museum.

This came through— it was quite interesting because this came through at a time when the incorrect story about attendance was playing out, so there was this drama unfolding about, “Why is attendance at the National Portrait Gallery falling?”

Charlotte Burns: You didn’t know yet that it was false, either.

Nicholas Cullinan: No, so this was back in… must have been December or January in the midst of this and we only found out that this was wrong in June/July.

So, this offer came through. This was going to happen on a Monday in February when we had no exhibitions open on the ground floor. Cézanne had closed and we were between exhibitions, so the entire ground floor was closed. We were being told at this point that we would get very few visitors on this Monday in February.

We had to really think about this seriously because we have to also constantly generate income: 70% of our income we have to generate ourselves; only 30% comes from the government.

Charlotte Burns: That’s a lot.

Nicholas Cullinan: Yes, that’s a lot. However, and this is the interesting paradox, though we’re 70% privately funded our entire remit is to serve the public and to be open for free to the public. The balance of this is quite tricky. You have to think of a way to make this possible: to be open for free and yet, have to generate most of the income yourself. It’s a very interesting paradox.

So, we had a discussion with our trustees and we went to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport with this proposition and both granted permission to do this and said other museums have closed for private events before. There was a precedent set, so we were not the first.

We thought when this happened that we would get some criticism, but not the level we did or indeed that it would be reported incorrectly that we were the first museum to ever do this. The other thing that was quite interesting is, we had people on the door explaining what was happening and I think that day—I can check, but I’m pretty sure—we had a total of seven complaints from the public. The way it was reported was that there were hordes of angry and upset people outside, which was not true either.

So, it was an interesting experience. What I would say now is that we did a second event with Erdem in September, but this time because we had exhibitions on the ground floor and because we’d learned a lot from doing this first project, we were able to keep much of the museum open.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Nicholas Cullinan: Most evenings, if the gallery’s not open, we hire out for private events. That’s the way that we’re able to keep going. We have to constantly think about ways to bring in income. The key thing is balancing that with remaining open to the public. It’s trying to keep these two things… It was a learning curve.

But I guess the thing is, we’re always trying to think about ways to be innovative and be energetic whether it’s in terms of how we fund ourselves, whether it’s in terms of the exhibitions we do. We’ve been trying to do new things. And if you try and do new things, sometimes, that displeases people or people can become upset or irate. But I’d be concerned if we weren’t trying to do new things. I think it’s very important there should be a degree of innovation rather than just sticking to the template.

Charlotte Burns: Right. Talking about fundraising, the question of ethics and fundraising is always an interesting one. There’s more pressure, because obviously with the decline in government funding and increased need for private funding, there is also a need for, perhaps, a way of policing or monitoring where the money’s coming from.

Nicholas Cullinan: Yes, and also we’re in the midst of raising the most amount of money we’ve ever raised which is £35m for a capital campaign. So, it’s vital that you do that in conjunction with a very rigorous ethics committee that can scrutinize all of those donations to make sure that those two things aren’t in opposition.

Charlotte Burns: Right. Exactly. So, you’re in the process of weighing whether or not to accept a pledge from the Sackler Trust of £1m. The Sackler Trust has been the subject of especial focus because of their link to the OxyContin crisis.

How are you dealing with that?

Nicholas Cullinan: Right now, that is due to go to our ethics committee to be considered. That will happen later this month. Then it will go to our trustees to be considered. So, I don’t know what the outcome is going to be. But what I will say is, the principal is vital that every donation we get is scrutinized to make sure that it’s from a source of funding that can be defended. We would never do anything that we felt was inherently wrong.

Charlotte Burns: The campaign that you’re fundraising for is called “Inspiring People”, and it’s a renovation of the museum to create more public space, better circulation, a different entrance, a more comprehensive redisplay of the collection that will ultimately boost the gallery’s attendance to around 2.5m. How is that progressing?

Nicholas Cullinan: We’re in the final stage of the capital campaign, which is £35m in total, that’s going very well. We’re working with Jamie Fobert Architects on those plans. I have to say, what’s exciting for me is not just building a new wing or addition and grafting something on to what we already have, but it’s making the most of what’s already there in terms of the building itself but also crucially our collection, and how we communicate that collection to our audiences.

It’s also not just about the building in London—it’s about our national program, it’s about digital, it’s about international collaborations. So, in a way, it’s shifting the profile of the entire institution.

Charlotte Burns: And when you say digital and international, what do you mean there?

Nicholas Cullinan: When I started four years ago, we did some international tours or collaborations, but it wasn’t perhaps the norm. I think every year we raised £50,000 from international tours and collaborations. That’s now gone up tenfold. It’s now half a million every year.

What we do is when we plan exhibitions now, we reach out right away to colleagues and peers around the world and say “We’re planning a Cindy Sherman retrospective. Would you be interested in working with us or be interested in taking this exhibition?” Or, we’ve now even devised exhibitions of the collection which can tour.

For example, we have an exhibition which is just closing right now in Houston called “Tudors to Windsors: [British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol]”, which are some of the great royal portraits that we have. I mean, we have an embarrassment of riches on that score because we have so many royal portraits over 500 years. We’re able to put an exhibition together which is very strong without denuding our galleries.

We’re constantly thinking about ways that we can share the collection as widely as possible in term of around the country, but also internationally. A, because it brings in income and revenue, but also, it’s a really important thing to do at this moment to be able to provide a very positive, unifying account of British history and identity here in London or elsewhere.

Charlotte Burns: Well yes, and we are recording this in the middle of a… I don’t even know how you would describe this week. A kind of wild week in which the Tory government has just suffered a humiliating and historic defeat. We’re mere weeks away from the official Brexit date with no deal in sight.

By the time this airs, perhaps there will be more clarity. But yes, the idea of sending out a more unifying message sounds like a good idea.

Obviously, you’re a national gallery. You deal with British history in the permanent collection and the exhibitions have a different remit. How do you position yourself for that unclear future? How do you think that Brexit will impact the gallery?

Nicholas Cullinan: That’s a discussion we’re all having right now, all of the museums and galleries, again with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. So that remains to be seen, but I think again, you have to focus on what your key remit or objective is.

It’s not political. The gallery has existed for a very long time now. What we’re doing is thinking about a way to provide an interesting and illuminating account of British history and culture from essentially the Tudor period all the way through to now. We do that with the commissions that we produce and with the sitters that we represent.

That remains unchanged. I remember the morning of the referendum results thinking, “What does this mean for us?” Because obviously for the National Portrait Gallery—a museum which is all about British identity—how does this sit with the message that you are communicating, the fact that we’re open to everyone and welcome everyone whether you’re from London, whether you’re from elsewhere in the country, or whether you’re from abroad.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Nicholas Cullinan: I sent a message to all the staff saying that obviously, however people voted—because we’re not political or partisan—however people voted, this will create uncertainty but the one thing we can be clear about is that everything we are going to do over the next few years matters more. It has more urgency and hopefully more impact because clearly, right now, we need to communicate an inclusive, positive, unifying message about British history, culture and values.

Charlotte Burns: As someone who is of dual nationality, who has worked in America and England and has traveled a lot through Europe, is it less appealing for you personally to think about staying in England for the rest of your career if it becomes more isolationist?

Nicholas Cullinan: No, because hopefully that won’t happen but also, I’m pretty defiant when it comes to if I believe in something, I will really fight for it. I love this country, I love London. I will really fight for the things I believe in and support them. I wouldn’t just abandon the ship. I think there are many things still to communicate, to celebrate and to be proud of.

And, you know, politics change often daily right now, or hourly. But culture doesn’t. That’s a much longer and slower duration in rhythm. That’s the thing I’m focusing more on.

Charlotte Burns: Right, that’s a really interesting way of thinking about it.

Nicholas Cullinan: That’s the thing you have to focus on. You have to have the courage of your convictions and think that obviously, things are changing around 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 and it’s very important to hold on to that. So, in a way, we’re doubling down right now.

Charlotte Burns: What are you doubling down on? What do you see as that British identity?

Nicholas Cullinan: Well, we represent 500 years of British history so that’s something that we need to keep communicating: the values that we stand for and how that now relates to British society, and what sort of society we want to become and who we want to include. It’s very important to think about those issues.

We don’t do that in a political way. For example, right now we have a display of contemporary photographs and new acquisitions. In that display are photographs of David Cameron and Nigel Farage, but we also have a photograph of Katherine Hamnett the British fashion designer wearing a t-shirt saying “Cancel Brexit”. So, we’re not partisan. We’re not presenting one particular view, But, what we are doing is showing some key flashpoints that have happened in British society over the last two or three years, because we should be relevant and allow people to have a discussion.

Charlotte Burns: Right, and it could be a space for that exchange perhaps in a less polarized way.

Last time we met you were talking to me a little bit about the massive shift in audience that you’d had around the Michael Jackson show, which I thought was quite interesting. I’m assuming that that was the largest number of diverse groups, faces, artists, non-white contributors that you’d probably ever had in the National Portrait Gallery.

Nicholas Cullinan: Yes, it was. Yes. The exhibition… We did research and a third of the visitors had been to the gallery before. A third were under the age of 24. And a third were from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Again, we didn’t do the exhibition specifically to tick those boxes. We did the exhibition because we thought it would be interesting and lively, and get people talking and thinking. It had a really interesting array of artists—it had content, it wasn’t just a vapid, celebrity-driven exhibition. It was wonderful to see the audiences that came to the exhibition, and I have to say, the exhibition is now at the Grand Palais in Paris and that’s being replicated there as well, not just in terms of numbers but again, the diversity of audiences.

So, to go back to that point—I think what’s interesting about our remit is that we can do an exhibition which looks at contemporary artists responses to Michael Jackson and then we can do Gainsborough. We can do both. I think it’s very important that we do both and we speak to different audiences.

It’s not either or. They’re not exclusive.

Charlotte Burns: It’s so interesting, because more than any podcast we’ve ever done, a lot of the conversations that happen around the National Portrait Gallery do seem to be more binary. I’m wondering if that would have been the case 10 years ago; if it’s to do with where we are. This is a national museum, it’s to do with choosing who you’re going to talk about, those faces to represent a culture.

Nicholas Cullinan: I think it’s to do with lots of things. It’s to do with all of those factors and it’s to do with where we are now. It’s to do with the fact that we’re a museum which is to do with British identity and history and culture; but I’ve seen this from the beginning.

For example, when my appointment was announced, obviously it was announced that I worked at the National Portrait Gallery as a student, as an assistant. I was in America at the time when the announcement was made, but just seeing the way that that announcement was treated in the British press was so interesting. Because even though I worked on the front desk when I was a student—which I’m proud of having done. I had to pay my way through university, I don’t come from a privileged background. I’m not ashamed of that. Several newspapers had to put the word “toilet” into the headline, saying “he used to tell people where the toilets were and now he’ll be directing the museum.

Maybe I told a couple of people—

Charlotte Burns: It wasn’t your full-time job.

Nicholas Cullinan: No!

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: You weren’t a full-time toilet director.

Nicholas Cullinan: I thought it was so interesting that they had to try and debase it as much as possible to make it seem as humble as possible. So, there’s all of these issues around class—

Charlotte Burns: Maybe more so than ever. I feel more aware of that this trip to London. It seems more striking to me.

Nicholas Cullinan: But also, I knew that was going to happen. I knew that when I took this job, given my background and given the fact that I worked when I was a student there as a guard and as a personal services assistant, that would be made much of.

Also, it was really interesting that someone could come from a humble background, having worked what people refer to as a sort of more humble role in the museum and then end up a few years later running it. I thought that was actually a really interesting message, but I knew that it would get people talking.

I’m not from the usual background of perhaps directors that the National Portrait Gallery had. I don’t come from a privileged background. I didn’t go to private school. I wasn’t even born in this country. I was born in America. And, my background is in contemporary art. So, I think many of those things that I knew would come to fruition, we’re still talking about today.

Charlotte Burns: That’s so true, yes. They’re still defining this idea of letting go of the expected.

Nicholas Cullinan: Good.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: Change. Change is coming.

[Laughter]

Which is a good thing.

The culture of philanthropy is different in England than it is in the United States, where you were working for a few years. What are the good and bad about the different systems. What’s the sort of ideal system you would create if you could create a new system?

Nicholas Cullinan: That’s a really interesting question. They both have pros and cons. I think the American model—let’s start with that.

I would say in general, the resources that American museums have are fantastic. It’s quite enviable. They can do extraordinary things with those resources, whether it’s in terms of acquisitions, or exhibitions, or the scholarship and the time and research that goes into catalogues. That’s wonderful.

Of course, the issue is that if you have a paywall in entering a museum, that tends to potentially exclude people. I don’t want to therefore say that American museums aren’t focused on that; they very much are. But it’s a different proposition if you have to hand over, say, $25 or $30—

Charlotte Burns: Per person, if you take a family of four it’s $100.

Nicholas Cullinan: Of course. Yes. The British model instead is that the pubic museums are free to enter for the permanent collection, which means that anyone can walk in off the street and go in and see one thing. So, you’re removing an economic barrier; you’re removing a physical barrier because essentially British museums are public space—you can walk in and you can walk out.

There is still, however, a social barrier just like there will be in America, where people feel that perhaps the museum isn’t for them or they don’t feel welcome. And that’s one thing we have to constantly endeavor to overcome and to confront.

The drawback of the British model is of course, therefore, you have less resources because you’re not getting ticket income from attendance. You have to be innovative about the ways that you generate income to make that possible, to be open for free to the public, to anyone.

So, both models have pros and cons. The one that resonates with me the most is having a museum which is free for everyone, because that’s what transformed my life. That’s what I want to hand on to other people. That’s what I really believe in.

Charlotte Burns: It’s also a different relationship with the art. You can be a little bit more—

Nicholas Cullinan: Casual.

Charlotte Burns: Casual. And also, focused. You can say, “I just want to go look at this one work.”

Nicholas Cullinan: You can go in on your lunch break and see one thing and walk out. Or, you can go and visit a museum for the first time and maybe realize it’s not for you and walk out, and you haven’t had to invest £20 or £30. That model definitely speaks to me, because it means it’s truly open for everyone. Still with social barriers to overcome, of course.

Charlotte Burns: How do you cultivate that funding? How do you cultivate the donor base and corporate partnerships? Especially in recessionary times, when there’s talk of a recession coming this year, how do you think around that?

Nicholas Cullinan: That speaks to your previous question about the potential hybrid between the two models. For me what’s interesting is running a museum which is open and free for everyone but trying to fundraise constantly to make that possible.

For example, when I started almost four years ago now we perhaps didn’t fundraise as much for acquisitions as we do now. I mean, we did for big acquisitions like the van Dyck self-portrait (1640) which was £10M, but for smaller things there was a tendency to assume that could be funded by the museum’s resources. Now, what we do with every acquisition we make is looking to reach out to potential supporters because what you’re doing is expanding your donor pool. You’re bringing people close to the museum. So, you go to people and you say, “I know you support this artist, or you have an interest in this subject, would you like to support this acquisition?” Everything we do now, we look to engage as many people as possible whether its potential donors and supporters, whether it’s our audience. You have to constantly bring new people to the museum.

I think for me, the better way to think about it is about building relationships. Building relationships with your audiences, plural. Building new relationships with new audiences that perhaps haven’t otherwise visited the museum. But in terms of donors and supporters, whether it’s corporate donors or individuals, you have to build long-term relationships with them. You have to build long-standing sustainable relationships with all of your stakeholders.

Charlotte Burns: Well Nick, this has been super enjoyable. 

I was thinking whether I wanted to tell people that I looked after your guinea pig, but no.

Nicholas Cullinan: A female guinea pig too.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: I know!

Nick, this has been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for joining me and for being my guest today.

Nicholas Cullinan: Thank you.