London’s National Portrait Gallery is one of the country’s top visitor attractions, welcoming more than 1.5 million people through its doors last year. In a divisive move announced on Tuesday, the gallery is set to close for three years to undergo a £35.5 million refurbishment.
Details of the major redevelopment, called ‘Inspiring People’, were first made public back in January. But this week’s announcement of a complete closure of the NPG came as a surprise to many.
Director of the NPG, Nicholas Cullinan, hailed the new design as “a unique and important chapter in our history.” ‘Inspiring People’ is due to commence in June 2020 until Spring 2023, with Jamie Fobert Architects providing the designs.
The sizeable project will create a more welcoming visitor entrance and public forecourt, a new state of the art Learning Centre, and significantly refurbish the 163-year-old building.
By rehanging the collection with a focus on gender and racial diversity, curators also hope “to connect with new and existing visitors and ensure the Gallery remains relevant to all our audiences in the 21st Century.”
Although London will suffer a temporary cultural loss, the renowned artworks will go on tour across the UK “in both innovative and collaborative ways”. NPG has pledged to lend an impressive 300 portraits a year to regional galleries, including York Art Gallery, Holburne Museum, National Museums Liverpool, Laing Art Gallery, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Numerous lovers of the institution, however, have criticised the hefty redevelopment. The Labour Party politician and journalist Andrew Adonis tweeted his disappointment over the closure, writing “it should not be closed for 3 years. Very bad planning and disregarding the public.”
Dr Bendor Grosvenor, the art historian and BBC presenter, likewise described the news as “extremely regrettable…it rarely works for an institution to take themselves out of the conversation for that long.”
Concerns have additionally been raised about the uncertain fate of the gallery’s 270 members of staff, particularly those who work in Visitor Experience. “The front of house staff there (for example) are wonderful, and have been there for years. To lose the priceless knowledge and passion that comes with long service is mad,” bemoaned Grosvenor.
A spokesperson for the NPG acknowledged that some job losses would be inevitable, but “where possible, staff will be offered part-time working and career break opportunities and the gallery is looking at a range of secondment opportunities with other institutions during the building period.”
The controversial step to shut their doors follows a reportedly troubling time for the gallery, which has witnessed a decline in annual visitor numbers over the past few years. Cullinan has attempted to reassure the public and gallery staff, explaining that ‘Inspiring People’ “will enable us to become more welcoming and engaging to all and fulfil our role as the nation’s family album.”