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Meet the new guard: Nicholas Cullinan to bring contemporary flair to London’s National Portrait Gallery

The former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art seeks to merge best practices from US and UK museums

A new generation is taking over the world’s leading museums. In the past six months, more than 50 institutions—including some of the world’s largest—have hired new directors.

Italy’s ministry of culture appointed 20 new leaders for its state museums in August. In London, the British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britainand Tate Modern have appointed or are searching for new directors. In the US, the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are among around 20 institutions welcoming new chiefs this autumn.

Although some things remain the same (many of these directors are white and male), the next generation will face new challenges, including shrinking public funds and changing visitor demographics.

We spoke to four directors about their vision for the future, and will publish a new interview each day. — Julia Halperin

His appointment as director of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), London, marks something of a homecoming for Nicholas Cullinan, who joined the museum this spring after a two-year stint as curator of Modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

More than a decade ago, Cullinan was a part-time visitor services assistant at the NPG. Now, he is working on a ten-year plan to take the institution forward beyond 2025. “We’re thinking about the overall direction and vision: what role we fulfil now and what a portrait gallery does in a digital era of things like Instagram and Facebook,” he says. “How does that change the discussion? How international should we be?”

The institution was founded in 1856 with a narrower focus than most other national museums: to promote better understanding of the “men and women who have made and are making British history and culture”, as well as appreciation of “portraiture in all media”, according to its mission statement. Although it is too early to divulge specifics, Cullinan says we can expect to see the institution “trying out a few new things”. He wants to strike a balance between historic and modern exhibitions, and is planning “a very strong contemporary programme” that may include film and video. “We’re thinking about people who have been overlooked and about people who address portraiture in different ways,” he says.

A different way of operating Planned for 2017 is an exhibition of portraits by Paul Cézanne, held in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Organised by the US curator John Elderfield, the show will span Cézanne’s career.

Cullinan’s stint in the US opened his eyes to different ways of operating. “I’m thinking about whether you can apply American systems to a British institution in terms of governance and fundraising,” he says. How to “do more with less” is top of his mind as further government funding cuts loom. But he “wouldn’t want to switch over to the American system entirely”. The fact that most British museums are free “creates a completely different relationship to museums and culture”, he says. “There isn’t an economic barrier.”

Another difference between US and UK museums is the degree of government oversight. The NPG has a new vacancy for a trustee, and will interview candidates shortly. Cullinan is involved in the process, but the Department for Culture, Media and Sport ultimately makes the decision. “It’s a different system but it’s a good system,” he says. “One of the reasons this job appealed to me is that I love the fact that British museums serve the public so clearly.”