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The unpopular populism of the National Portrait Gallery

31 March 2019

7:33 AM

31 March 2019

7:33 AM

Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, says that the success of a gallery should not be judged by its number of visitors. He is defensive because the visitor figures at the NPG have fallen (by nearly 120,000 from 2016-17). Dr Cullinan is right. Anyone who likes going to galleries would always say, ‘The smaller the visitor numbers, the merrier for those who want to see the pictures.’

But what he says now would seem to go against his vision for the gallery’s future. It is currently trying to raise £35.5 million for its new ‘Inspiring People’ project. Launching the appeal in January, Dr Cullinan enthused about how the NPG wants to be ‘the nation’s family album’. He seeks room for more 20th-century and contemporary work and more ‘diversity’, thus parroting the utterly un-diverse uniformity of virtually everyone in the arts world. Dr Cullinan claims that modernisation and expansion are needed because the most common thing people say when entering the building is ‘Why does nobody here look like me?’ To which the obvious answer, is ‘Why should it? If you want a gallery to look like you, fill it with mirrors.’ Surely the arts involve encounter with the other, not merely with oneself.

A national portrait gallery ought to have a collection of pictures of individual people who have mattered in the life of the nation — not of you, me and anybody who happens to be alive today. I suspect that the public feels this, and is less attracted by the latest daubs that now clutter the place, which I noticed recently when I emerged from its ravishing exhibition of Elizabethan miniatures. If the NPG persists in its unpopular populism, it will have real difficulty raising the £35.5 million.

This article is an extract from Charles Moore’s Spectator Notes, available in this week’s magazine.


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