November 16, 2011
Interview: James Holloway

Emily Burke interviews James Holloway, director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in preparation for the grand re-opening.

Having been closed for refurbishments since 2009, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery may be a distant memory for some, maybe even never experienced by others. However, it is a definite must-see for all once it re-opens on 30 November.

‘Portrait of the Nation’, the project that has taken over the gallery, aims to “restore and reveal much more of the building than ever before; to show many more works of art by introducing a new, regularly changing display programme; and to create first-class education and visitor services”. This project has completely transformed the space and aims of the gallery, catapulting it to an entirely new level.

However, it has been an uphill struggle to get to this stage. Having been threatened 16 years ago with closure and the removal of its Scottish collection, it’s no wonder that James Holloway, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, is proud of their achievements. “It’s what I dreamt of, but I really never thought it would happen. To be honest, it’s exceeded my wildest dreams, and we’re just completely thrilled with how the building looks and how the collection looks in it.” And why wouldn’t he be proud? For 120 years, the original Robert Rowan Anderson building has only been used to half its original intention, with only three galleries in operation and the rest of the space taken over by offices.

Through this extensive renovation, the Portrait Gallery has now acquired an additional seven gallery spaces, along with a digital media area, a sumptuous Victorian library– now open to the public– and a spectacular glass lift that provides a view onto every level. “It’s going to be very unlike the old gallery” stated Holloway as we walked around the new gallery spaces. Though this is evidently true, it is pleasing to see that the integrity of the original building remains firmly intact.

With this new expanse of space, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery now has the great opportunity to display more of its extensive collection than was ever previously possible. Portraits that have never been exhibited in the gallery before will now hang proudly, including a portrait of the Earl of Wharton and his family from the 1740s, and an Allan Ramsay portrait of the King and Queen.

However, the focus of the gallery will not specifically be on Scottish art, instead being threaded through the exhibitions as a sort of narrative. “To be honest, so much of Scottish painting until about 1820 was portraiture, and still was actually until the end of the 19th century, so a gallery like this does tell the first chapters of the history of Scottish art.” This will allow more room for photography and landscape, genres that were touched on in previous exhibitions, but will come to the fore in the new exhibition spaces. Highlights of future exhibitions will include Imagining Power: The Visual Culture of the Jacobite CauseOut of the Shadow: Women of 19th Century ScotlandMigration Stories: Pakistan and War at Sea.

As a national institution, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is ‘the people’s gallery’, which has been emphasised through the ‘Portrait of the Nation’ fundraising scheme, allowing us to feel engaged and part of the gallery’s journey. Although their visitor profile has always been more Scottish based, Holloway hopes that more tourists will now enter through its doors, and so increase its attendance ratings by 50 per cent. However, with a £17 million investment in the gallery, it seems in no doubt that they will achieve this conservative goal.

Just walking through the gallery space, still a month and half away from completion, the buzz around it is electrifying. With a collection that spans from the mid-16th Century to the present day, it’s a daunting task for any director, but Holloway seems to be taking it in his stride, envisaging the gallery as “a big party, where you meet lots of different people and different characters - a great party is the variety of people that you meet.” And that truly is what the new Scottish National Portrait Gallery is – a celebration of an artistic nation, with many new faces to encounter.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery re-opens on 30 November 2011.

Originally published and printed in The Journal, 19/10/11