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Wednesday, 29 November 2023

Lit and Sci

Transforming The National Portrait Gallery

Speaker: Dr. Nicholas Cullinan
Sat 25 Nov, 7.30pm
Hebden Bridge Town Hall

Last Saturday, Nicholas Cullinan told the fascinating story about how, since 2015, he has transformed The National Portrait Gallery. 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.

Photo: Zoe Law

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 National Portrait Gallery 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 National Portrait Gallery 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.

Many thanks to Roger Gill for this report

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