Dr Nicholas Cullinan is the Director of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Born in Connecticut, USA and raised in Yorkshire, UK, his career has seen him in curatorial roles at some of the world’s most important cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and London’s Tate Modern.

Can you share a bit about your background and your relationship with the National Portrait Gallery?

I was born in America, but as my parents were British, we moved back to England when I was about four or five years old. I grew up in Yorkshire, in Hebden Bridge West Yorkshire. I didn’t go to school – I was taught at home, so that’s kind of different. As a child, I visited a lot of museums, but it was as a teenager that I developed a particular passion for Art History. What’s special for me is that my relationship with the National Portrait Gallery goes a long way back – I actually worked at the Gallery between 2001 and 2003 as a part-time Visitor Services Assistant while studying, so it’s a very special place for me.

Tell us about your career in art curation.

When I was young, I used to visit the Academia Gallery in Venice, which opened late on Wednesday evenings, and it was there, reading my guidebook, that I realized how visual objects had an incredible power to combine literature, history, philosophy, languages, and politics in one. My first full-time role was at Tate Modern, where I worked on exhibitions, including Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. I then went back to New York, joining the Metropolitan Museum of Art, before finally coming back to the National Portrait to take up the role of Director. So that’s my life story!

Can you share accomplishments or exhibitions you’re proud of during your tenure?

The reopening of the new National Portrait Gallery has been an amazing accomplishment, as it’s just such a rare opportunity to be able to transform and reinvent a much-loved national institution from the inside out; top to bottom – the building, the Collection, the brand, and visual identity, everything! There have been many exhibitions I’ve been very proud to work on too. I love working with great contemporary artists – in 2018, we worked with Tacita Dean to share the Gallery’s first exhibition of film, which was part of an unprecedented collaboration with the Royal Academy of Arts and The National Gallery. I love to do things that haven’t been done before.

The National Portrait Gallery showcases the essence of British identity. How do you define “Britishness” in the context of the Gallery’s collection?

Well, of course, the remit of our Gallery is quite unique. The National Portrait Gallery was the first portrait gallery anywhere in the world when we were founded in 1856. Our Collection focuses on telling the stories of British history through this incredible tapestry of individuals, through the medium of portraits, so ‘Britishness’ is really at the heart of everything we do. We also tell an expanded story of ‘Britishness,’ which is about people that have moved to the UK and made amazing contributions, from artists like Holbein and Van Dyck, to contemporary sitters like Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who came to Birmingham after she’d been shot by the Taliban. The portrait of Malala by Shirin Neshat that’s on display in the Weston Wing was actually something I proposed during my job interview, so making that happen was really amazing. Britain has always been a country that has welcomed people and ideas. We’re an island, but we’re a trading nation who have always used that as a means by which to connect with the wider world, exchange ideas, and collaborate. To me, that represents the best of ‘Britishness’.

How do you perceive the relationship between style and art in the context of the Gallery’s collection?

Fashion and costume are very important aspects of our Collection. Sitters usually make very conscious decisions about the clothes they are depicted in. In Tudor portraiture, for example, the incredible costumes that people wear and the intricate carpets they stand on tell us so much about the lives they led.

How has the Gallery’s approach to representing British identity evolved to reflect the 21st-century multicultural society?

As Britain evolves, our Collection evolves. When we reopened our Gallery, we wanted to ensure that our Collection represented Britain past and present, and in all of its variety and complexity. We think of our Collection and Gallery as a living portrait of Britain. The response we’ve had from visitors, both familiar and new, has been phenomenal, and people definitely now feel that the National Portrait Gallery is something that better reflects Britain as it is in their lives, and that’s a very positive thing.

To maintain an uncompromising vision for the Gallery, what principles or values do you prioritise in your work?

Quality is essential. You always have to think about the quality with which you are doing things. I think it’s important to never second-guess your audience or assume that people want a certain thing. You have to give people credit for their intelligence and curiosity. While it’s important to take risks and to be bold, you shouldn’t just copy what other people do – the values I prioritise are to innovate and pioneer.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan was photographed at the National Portrait Gallery in London wearing our AW23 collection.

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