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BM appoints Nicholas Cullinan

After overseeing a transformation of the National Portrait Gallery he will need to draw on that experience in his new role


Cullinan attending the GQ men of the year awards in 2017 with Courtney Love. The US singer has called him her ‘soulmate’. Photograph: Ian West/PA.

Nicholas Cullinan, who has been appointed as the new director of the British Museum, was seen as the favourite for the job due to his reputation in the art world as an energetic leader.

As the director of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) since 2015, the 46-year-old art historian and curator oversaw the most ambitious redevelopment in the institution’s history, a £41.3m refurbishment and rehang of its collection.

He was also instrumental in ensuring that the Portrait of Mai (Omai) by Joshua Reynolds, described as “one of the most important, influential portraits in the history of British art”, remained on public display.

This experience impressed the leadership of the British Museum’s board of trustees, as reflected by its chair George Osborne’s tribute to Cullinan when his appointment was announced: “He has shown his capacity as director of the National Portrait Gallery to oversee both a major physical renovation and a compelling renewal of purpose in a way that doesn’t take sides, but brings people together – and won universal acclaim.”

In his new role Cullinan will need to draw on his fundraising skills to oversee its ambitious masterplan, a 10-year project, estimated to cost £1bn, to modernise its building in Bloomsbury, central London, and redisplay the entire collection.

When his appointment was announced, Cullinan said: “This will encompass the most significant transformations, both architectural and intellectual, happening in any museum globally, to continue making the British Museum the most engaged and collaborative it can be.”

He will also need to navigate the furore over the museum’s continued partnership with the oil company BP, which has provoked many high-profile protests. At the NPG he ended a similar sponsorship deal with BP but the institution was subsequently criticised by climate activists after it announced a similar deal with Herbert Smith Freehills, a law firm with connections to the oil industry.

Cullinan was born in Connecticut but grew up in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He studied art history at the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art in London. His first role at the NPG was as a visitor services assistant, directing people around the exhibits, giving talks about portraits and working on the information desk.

He went on to work as a curator of international modern art at Tate Modern, where he co-curated its blockbuster Matisse cut-outs exhibition in 2014 with the gallery’s then director, Nicholas Serota. He then spent two years as the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, working on exhibitions of artists including Cy Twombly and Edvard Munch.

Cullinan has also lectured internationally, written for many art journals, and published books on Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg.

His close friendship with the US singer Courtney Love became widely known in 2017 when the widow of the Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain called him her “soulmate” and her “family for life” on Instagram. They attended the GQ men of the year awards at the Tate Modern together that year.

Cullinan invited her to DJ at the reopening of the NPG and she returned to play tracks at its gala in March.

In an interview with Elle Decoration last year, he shared his eclectic tastes, citing Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Tristes apprêts, from his 1737 opera Castor et Pollux, as his favourite piece of music, while also revealing his love for Michael Jackson’s debut solo album, Off the Wall, and the American teen comedy Mean Girls.


See also: Nicholas Cullinan is appointed director of the British Museum