Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

NPG’s Kate Quinlan ready to take risks

Karen Quinlan was picked to lead the National Portrait Gallery last year. Dominic Lorrimer.

Tom McIlroy, Portrait Gallery boss ready to take some risks, The Australian Financial Review, 25 October 2019

Karen Quinlan has an enviable record of turning art exhibitions into cultural blockbusters.
Named director of Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery in late 2018, Quinlan arrived in the national capital after nearly two decades leading the Bendigo Art Gallery.

There her exhibitions caught peers and rivals off guard, drawing huge crowds to the Victorian goldfields city to see shows including Marilyn Monroe, The White Wedding Dress and The Golden Age of Couture. 

Bendigo – population 110,000 – was swamped with crowds of 150,000 people for Grace Kelly: Style Icon in 2012.

Quinlan is preparing to announce her first major international exhibition for the Portrait Gallery.

She hopes the show, set to open in winter 2020, will bring some of “the Bendigo effect” to Canberra.

“I’m very confident the exhibition will be a game changer,” she said. “You have to take some calculated risks in this line of work and I think we are also wanting to extend our reach globally.

“As well as bringing the world here to us, I’m looking at us going to the world.”

Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery reopened in September. Supplied.

The gallery is charged with depicting representations of people who have influenced or contributed to the shaping of Australia. Its collection includes movie stars, prime ministers, sporting heroes and trailblazers.

Quinlan plans stand-alone exhibitions for Australian and overseas artists in the summer months, and wants to cooperate with and co-opt ideas from the world’s other major portrait galleries — in London, Copenhagen, Edinburgh and Wellington.

The gallery reopened in September after a five-month closure. Almost every floor inside and outside the $87 million building needed major structural improvements, despite being just 10 years old.

Artist Tom Roberts was among those advocating for a portrait collection as early as the 1900s.

Following lobbying from cultural leaders, John Howard opened the gallery after encountering an Australian tourist at the US National Portrait Gallery in Washington. It would be good to have “one of these at home,” the visitor told the then-prime minister.

“I think portraiture has that instant connection, an immediacy,” Quinlan said.

“That recognition not only of a face that you know but of a face that you connect with. It can bring out many different emotions and reactions and can be very inspirational.”

Having served on the boards of the National Gallery of Victoria, the State Library of Victoria and the Melbourne Fashion Festival, Quinlan knows her institution is a growing player, competing with bigger collections in Sydney and Melbourne.

Canberra’s national institutions compete strongly for visitors and funding.

Quinlan has added a new national portrait painting award, the Darling Prize, to the popular National Photographic Portrait Prize and wants to boost education and marketing offerings for future exhibitions.

As much as anything, she wants Australians to visit and to come back.

“The way I view my work is thinking about what’s possible, what I can achieve and then I just go for it.

“That may mean that it’s very ambitious, and not everything works.

“It’s got to be representative and more than a photo album of the country. It’s a celebration of all of the diversity within this nation and therefore the responsibility is huge.”

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2020
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