The National Portrait Gallery announced in November that it would close its doors to the public for a prolonged period from June 2020. It is expected that the gallery will remain closed until the spring of 2023 at the earliest, meaning that one of the UK capital’s most popular institutions will be unavailable to the public for one of the longest periods in its long history. At present, the gallery attracts in the region of one and a half million visitors a year, putting it in the top ten of most-visited museums and galleries in England – and one of the best-loved in the entire world.
Established in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery has occupied its current site – close to the National Gallery – since it moved to St Martin’s Place, just off Trafalgar Square, in the late 1890s. The gallery also has a site at Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire and a regional outpost at Montacute House in Somerset but these will be unaffected by the closure. In fact, the portrait gallery’s leadership team have decided that the closure is a necessity in order to bring the institution up to the standard of many of the other galleries and museums in central London. According to the plan – which came as something of a surprise to many in the museum sector – the gallery will lend something in the region of 300 paintings in its collection to regional galleries and organisations in the country. It is not yet known what the implications will be for the 270 or so gallery employees although some job losses are expected to follow.
A Revamped Gallery
The reason that the National Portrait Gallery will shut its doors for such a prolonged period is because it plans to carry out a thorough redevelopment programme of the entire gallery. The gallery space has been updated before over the course of its 123-year history but it has been in need of a more substantial update for a number of years, according to many commentators, at least. The museum’s board decided that it would be better to opt for a complete closure rather than to try and shut down only sections of the gallery while it is renovated. This reflects the ambitious nature of the refurbishment project – one that is expected to come with a price tag of no less than £35.5 million.
The idea for a large redevelopment project was first announced by the gallery in January 2019. At that point, the idea of any closure – let alone such a long one – was not mentioned at all. Few in the capital’s vibrant museum sector expected that the project would come without a significant level of disruption but the announcement of a three-year gap in its normal opening schedule has come as something of a bombshell. Nevertheless, Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said that the plans represented, “a unique and important chapter in our history.” He went on to add that the transformation of the gallery would mean that it would be more able to operate in a welcoming and engaging manner.
A Collaborative Approach
As mentioned, the National Portrait Gallery’s satellite institutions will receive some of the best-known portraits in the institution’s collection so the public will still be able to continue to enjoy many of the gallery’s famous works of art. Additionally, several artworks will be sent for display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh – a different institution from the National Portrait Gallery itself.
Furthermore, the gallery’s professionals have set up plans for a tour of some of its collection at different locations in National Trust properties. These will include Hughenden in Buckinghamshire, Mottisfont in Hampshire and Basildon Park in Berkshire. Further plans to share works of art in non-traditional gallery spaces across the country – such as schools – are in the pipeline, too. Cullinan encouraged community groups to get in contact with the gallery about proposals for such outreach work.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.