Q&A with Sandy Nairne

Patrick Steel, 12.08.2014
National Portrait Gallery director looks back on his tenure
Sandy Nairne, a former vice-president of the Museums Association, has announced that he will be retiring from his post as the director of London's National Portrait Gallery (NPG) next year, a role he has had since 2002.

What would you say your achievements have been at the NPG?

A real mix of things: acquiring the Van Dyck self-portrait was the culmination of a lot of work on the development of the collections, assisted by the Portrait Fund, which the gallery didn’t have previously. And obviously the portrait was very important in itself.

Our commissions: from more controversial commissions like the Duchess of Cambridge, or famous ones like David Beckham by Sam Taylor-Johnson.

Our exhibitions: the Lucian Freud was a big high point, and we have some great ones to come. I’ll be sad not to be here running the place when they happen.

I’m also pleased at the development of the NPG's learning, research and digital work, and its role in partnership around the country. But at the centre of everything I’m proud of the development of an incredibly strong team, having been able to work with very good people around me.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

Of course there are things that you could have done better, but I don’t think any substantive things – I don’t think we made any wrong policy shifts, for instance.

What are the challenges for your successor?

The last four years have been particularly challenging, developing the institution with less core funding, but we have produced a positive response to that situation.

We are unlikely to see a period when governments will feel able to reinvest in national museums. I disagree with this view – look at what all museums provide to education, culture and the monetary economy - but being realistic, for a period, it’s going to carry on being a challenge.

I don’t think visitor numbers are going to go down and we are doing a lot of future planning about the renewal of the gallery. Part of what my successor can do is pick up the baton as we renew our facilities and the way we display the collection. There is lot of creative work for the next six to seven years.

Is it harder being a national director now than it was when you started?

I think there are a lot of pressures. It is more complicated on every front, but we have also become better at dealing with it. With great colleagues, we have got much better at working together: our systems and methods are better, and our planning is better.

There are other challenges: diversity remains, quite rightly, one of the key issues.

The media landscape is more complicated, but not unfavourable. Many of the pressures are around accountability and they are pressures that a national museum director should have, as you are doing everything for the public good.

And there is less government funding. The NPG's grant-in-aid funding is now down to about 40% of our overall income. In the new mix it is about bringing new enterprise to public benefit – taking financial enterprise to support social enterprise.

Do you have plans to direct another museum or gallery?

Not at the moment. I’ve loved doing this job, and continue to. I plan to do a mix of things when I leave but I’m unlikely to take on another large executive role.

A news analysis looking at the NPG and the National Gallery will be in the 1 September issue of Museums Journal in print and online.