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Interview 2009

Sandy Nairne CBE

Former Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London

& Chair of the Clore Leadership Programme

“If you are going to acquire great works of art for the nation,

they are not going to be handed to you.”

Following the arrival of new work by new artists – in particular Marc Quinn’s controversial work Self, formed from nine pints of his own blood, Pippa Jane Wielgos interviews Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery in London. 

They discuss the gallery’s policies on acquisition of contemporary art, the search for new audiences and the benefits and responsibilities of support from charitable sponsors.

PJW: Is competition forcing galleries such as The National Portrait Gallery to make unusual or non-traditional decisions regarding the acquisition of new works? 

SN: No. I don’t think competition is in any sense affecting how we work. We try to assess what is appropriate for this collection and assess it very carefully through the work of our curators and, where appropriate, take it for consideration to the Board of Trustees. 

I don’t think it is a question of competition - rather the reverse. We go out of our way to be careful to make sure that what we acquire is the right thing for The National Portrait Gallery. If something is more appropriate for other collections, we would generally recommend that it went there.

PJW: Why the National Portrait Gallery acquire Self by Marc Quinn? 

SN: Because we thought this is a really important self portrait by an artist of great interest and distinction. It is one of a sequence of works, (the fourth), with Marc Quinn making one every five years - not an additional series, but as a sequence. It is true that I knew that the earlier three had, for different and perfectly valid reasons, been acquired elsewhere and left the country, so knowing that this one might still stay in the country we could acquire it., but primarily because we thought it was an outstanding contemporary work and what was outstanding about it is that it speaks both to questions of self image and mortality.

PJW: Does this acquisition reflect a departure in usual acquisition policy of the National Portrait Gallery? If so how?

SN: It is unusual in the sense in that it is an unusual sculpture format and made out of unusual material. We do not have any other works made for display made out of frozen blood. Obviously there are some technical questions we need to grapple with, but we have already had works, including one by Marc Quinn, in unconventional materials. The portrait of Sir John Sulston is made from Sir John’s DNA genetic material and that was acquired eight years ago. So it is not new to have things made out of unusual material.

PJW: Would you say the National Portrait Gallery has taken a revised ‘renaissance’ in its policy approach with regard to acquisition of work by major living contemporary artists?

SN: The thing that is most unusual is in commissioning work. We are the only national collection that regularly commission all the time. A lot of national collections do commission, such as the Imperial War Museum, who commission artists to cover different periods. But each year we are commissioning five or six new portraits from artists and of course that is innately risky in acquiring or buying. In this case of Marc Quinn, we didn’t commission, so we were buying with important help from other people to make that possible. 

I think that what we have been doing in recent years is to make the quality of both of what we commission and what we acquire as high as it should be in works of national and international standard and that is certainly something that I and the Trustees have been keen to do. 

PJW: What other works may be lined up for the future?

SN: I don’t know, but I think the thing we are always trying to consider is how to make contextual links with other works but also establish where there are links about portraiture. For instance we had links with Anthony Gormley’s project in Trafalgar Square , (the fourth plinth) and we had a direct link with that in our main hall. 

PJW: Are galleries going through a rapid revamp on their thinking with regard to the acquisition of works in order to keep abreast with what’s happening in the market and in addition to art historical developments?

SN: The market provides some kind of complexity because it means that you have a few artists sometimes that sell for a high price, those that don’t and others that sell for much more modest prices. And that may lead to some confusion about ideas of value and sometimes difficulties in having to raise a large fee for artists who are commanding those sums. 

Obviously, with the recession, things have possibly evened out a bit more in some of the higher end prices but that’s not altogether clear that that’s gone away. I think for most museums and galleries what one is thinking about is what is the range of acquisitions. Here at the National Portrait Gallery, we are thinking about historical works all of the time as well as contemporary works seeing them as a continuum of works across the collection of things we might acquire and acquisitions have always remained crucial to The National Portrait Gallery as a living collection. 

I suppose one could say that some of the argument in the last three or four years has swung back towards recognising research that goes along with the work, but you can’t do good collecting without doing good research and specialist knowledge around it. 

More recently Michael Craig Martin’s portrait of Zaha Hadid - those are both very different kinds of digital portrait added in to the range that we are doing, but I have also involved in commissioning very traditional types of painted portraits and I am keen that to continue. So for me it’s keeping a wider range of high quality portraits of very different styles and approaches.

PJW: Do you consider that acquisitions are re-shaping/re-writing elements of British art history? 

SN: Art history is simply doing its job. It will take a much broader span than what is ending up in collections. We have always seen over decades that what happens to be in any of the national collections – albeit the Tate, V&A or equally key recent collections, that it has to be narrower than what was actually going on. What happened in the art scene at any moment in the art scene is both larger and broader than what is or has been collected. 

There are art movements that don’t appear at all. Think of the more ephemeral works, part of the Fluxus movement. While that was going on in the sixties and seventies, none of it appeared in collections and only more much recently being able to be acquired by the Tate or other collections and artists recognised as important for their work. 

Take some of the strands of some the feminist work, where important things were being made which public galleries did not respond to at the time, so one hopes that art history in the broader sense will pay attention to actually what was happening and not simply write itself through to what a percentage of galleries choose to collect.

PJW: What are the artistic historical criteria used? 

SN: The National Portrait Gallery has within it the most important collection of portraits in this country. We have the earliest painted self-portrait collection in this country, from the sixteenth century, and we have a number of very notable important self portraits running through every century right up to the twenty-first century, so I think, the first thing we are thinking about is the different kind of approaches to historical links through self-portraiture itself, rather than just representing themselves. 

I think that we are also thinking about portrait sculpture and the fact that portrait sculpture is in some ways stayed closer to more traditional forms than portrait painting, which verge more broadly on holistic approaches. So it’s intriguing to see with Marc Quinn’s work, a very different approach to sculptural form and to direct casting to the direct material of using his own blood.

PJW: How are audience figures making museums more competitive? 

SN: I don’t think there is competition at all. Competition doesn’t come in to it. We try to serve a broader a public as we can and we are always working hard to try and attract a wide range of people who may have thought that the National Portrait Gallery was not for them.

I know a lot of museums are doing the same thing. 

We have 1.8 million visits to The National Portrait Gallery plus one-quarter million to our partnership work in the north-east and the south-west and in our work for The National Trust and work throughout the country. So we are always thinking of ways of trying to attract more people. We don’t think it as being in competition but by being co-operative and encouraging people to then go on to other galleries in Plymouth and Sunderland.

PJW: How important is it to represent living artists at the National Portrait Gallery? 

SN: Very important. Our commissioning is just one part of our gallery work. For more than 25 years The National Portrait Gallery has been commissioning new portraits and working with contemporary artists and that I think will remain a particular and very special part of our acquisitions programme.

PJW: How important do you consider Marc Quinn as a leading protagonist in British art today?

SN: Marc Quinn is amongst a large number of artists who work at an international level in New York and around the world and both his generation and a generation of more senior and younger as well enjoy that interest. One can never take it for granted, but I think the interest and importance of their work is recognised much more widely than just in this country. 

PJW: Are a certain percentage that are assigned to living artists?

SN: No we do not ever work on percentage basis. We work on what we think is appropriate and of high quality.

PJW: Surely with the material that "Self" is made of, there are certain conservation questions for the National Portrait Gallery? 

SN: Certainly, in the case of the Quinn, it involved discussion with the artist and his colleagues at the White Cube Gallery, the gallery that represent him. But given that he has been making these type of works for quite some time now for 20 years, there is a great deal known about the technology and freezing of blood and material of this kind and therefore being able to keep it for a long period of time. We able to report to our Trustees when they were considering the acquisition what exactly the technical aspects were. 

PJW: What was the cost?

SN: £300,000 was the final discounted price from our regular revenue budget. But in any year we set aside anything from £1.5 million, £2 million to even more because we raise funds additionally and we are very lucky to get support from The Art Fund, The Heritage Memorial Fund and The Heritage Lottery Fund and then from key individual supporters.

A few years’ ago we created the Portrait Fund in order to help us with major acquisitions. We always have to do a lot of work on fundraising for particular important works, especially for the Quinn, where we got funding from the Henry Moore Fund, the Art Foundation, including a number of individuals. 

If you are going to acquire great works of art for the nation, they are not going to be handed to you and you have to do work alongside it, or persuading people sometimes, but we have had fantastic support and responses from people. Many other particular individuals have been incredibly helpful to us.

Interview with Sandy Nairne, CBE, 2009.

Above right: Marc Quinn, "Self", acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2009.

© Pippa Jane Wielgos.


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