Sandy Nairne is stepping down as director of the National Portrait Gallery next year

All change at London galleries

Patrick Steel, Issue 114/09, p11, 01.09.2014
The directors of the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery are quitting next year. Patrick Steel assesses their tenures
Next year Nicholas Penny and Sandy Nairne, the directors of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery (NPG) respectively, will step down. So in this tale of two galleries, is it the best of times or the worst of times?

Penny is credited with staging Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, which attracted 323,897 visitors. He also oversaw acquisitions including the Titian paintings Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, and the George Bellows painting Men of the Docks. The number of visitors to the gallery has risen from 4.4 million in 2008, when Penny arrived, to a record 5.9 million last year.

Nairne has also presided over rising visitor numbers, from 1.3 million when he joined in 2002 to 1.9 million last year, diversifying the gallery’s visitor profile in the process. He has overseen the £10m acquisition of Van Dyck’s Self-portrait and staged several high-profile exhibitions including Lucian Freud Portraits (246,801 visitors).

In the statement announcing his departure, Penny refers to the National Gallery continuing “to prosper despite a steadily declining grant”, and both directors have had to deal with the need to diversify income. The National Gallery receives less grant-in-aid now than it did in 2008, although the NPG’s has risen by 23% during Nairne’s stewardship.

But both galleries present their own challenges for any successor. According to one insider: “There has had to be quite a bit of painful restructuring [at the National Gallery] owing to the reduction in government funding, including the outsourcing of security. Whoever is appointed will need to be confident in their handling of management and staff relations.”

And both galleries need to expand their exhibition spaces to accommodate the rise in visitors, says former Dulwich Picture Gallery director Giles Waterfield.

Among those tipped to take over from Nairne are Kathleen Soriano, a former head of exhibitions at the NPG who stepped down from her role as director of exhibitions at the Royal Academy in April to “take on new projects”, and Christopher Baker, the director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

National Galleries Scotland director-general John Leighton, and Luke Syson, curator of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are being mooted as successors to Penny.

If another big museum job awaits Nairne or Penny, neither is letting on. Nairne becomes chairman of the Clore Leadership Programme this month, a position he will continue to hold after leaving the NPG in February when he plans to pursue “writing and advisory work”. Penny has said he is looking forward to spending more time with “family, friends and books”.

In the words of Charles Dickens, they have everything before them.

National Gallery

2007-08 (Penny joins)

  • £25.6m grant-in-aid
  • £40.7m total income
  • 3.9 million visitors


  • £25.5m grant-in-aid
  • £57.4m total income (2012-13)
  • 5.9 million visitors

National Portrait Gallery

2002-03 (Nairne joins)

  • £5.7m grant-in-aid
  • £12.4m total income
  • 1.3 million visitors


  • £7m grant-in-aid
  • £18.7m total income
  • 1.9 million visitors