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Dr Nicholas Cullinan: Transforming the National Portrait Gallery

    Saturday 25th November 2023 • Hebden Bridge Town Hall • 7:30pm – 9:00pm

    Photo: Zoë Law

    How it went – write up by Roger Gill

    Last Saturday, Nicholas Cullinan told the fascinating story about how, since 2015, he has transformed The National Portrait Gallery (NPG). His talk was a perfect finale to our 2023 programme in what has been a spectacular year of inspirational speakers and sold-out events.

    What a journey we’ve had with Liz John, a leading writer for The Archers; Rachel McCormack gave us a whisky tasting tutorial; Professor Tim O’Brien took us on a journey through the cosmos; Dara McAnulty (in our joint venture with HB Arts/Open Space 70) helped us wonder at the natural world; Professor John Wright gave an insightful overview of his Born in Bradford project; and Julie Hesmondhalgh captivated us when talking about her acting with a social conscience.

    Then, to ice the cake, came Nicholas Cullinan who proved that youth is no barrier when moving mountains if you have a deep knowledge of your subject, a warm, inclusive personality, and a strong capacity for hard work. His talk was what it said on the tin. Our posters showed a suave, intellectual looking man dressed stylishly in black ready to talk about changing the nature of a national treasure – and that is what we got.

    The NPG had 11 directors before Nicholas all of whom have made their own mark. Now Nicholas has made his with the newly renovated building, at a cost of £41 million, that reopened, after three years, in June 2023.

    The entire setting has been meticulously transformed from being a rather stand-offish building into an entirely welcoming one. Now, people flock in after passing through the magnificent new bronze doors etched with drawings of the faces of unknown women by Tracey Emin. Visitors see a comprehensively rearranged display of a brilliant selection of work, hung in far more open, light filled, spaces. There have been over a million visitors since June.

    Anyone thinking that the talk might just be about changes to the building quickly realised that this was not true. Equally important were the artists themselves, the sitters, and the choice of subject matter, all of which Nicholas has made sure are relevant for people today, many of whom might never have set foot in an art gallery before.

    Nicholas’s passion for relevance led him to commission some iconic new work such as the photograph of Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat. It was the portrait he most wanted to commission when he got the job in 2015 and now it takes pride of place in what he describes as an institution that is, “far more relevant, more open, and more accessible.”

    When asked at the end what underlying factors made this project a success, he generously gave credit to his architects, builders, sponsors, and trustees, but this was plainly too modest. Many people in the audience saw in Dr. Cullinan an admirable blend of drive, charm and modesty that must have endeared him to a host of people such as corporate donors, politicians, and The Princess of Wales – the NPG Patron. In addition, he showed an unfaltering desire, based on his rich knowledge of art and obviously having being raised in Hebden Bridge, to present a selection of art that tells a story of society, past and present, designed to enlighten, extend, and challenge an ever-growing audience.

    After hearing him speak, many in the audience who have not been to London since June of this year started making plans to visit as soon as possible.

    We begin our 2024 programme on January 20th with the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, which has already sold out.

    Join Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, as he discusses the NPG’s major transformation project, Inspiring People. Nicholas will talk about the redevelopment of the historical building, the redisplay of the Collection·and the national programme of activity, and the future of the NPG.

    Nicholas Cullinan took up his position as the Director of the National Portrait Gallery in spring 2015 following his role as Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 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 and in 2006-7 he held the Hilla Rebay International Fellowship at the Guggenheim museums in Bilbao, New York and Venice.