Details of the £35.5m revamp at London’s National Portrait Gallery

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London’s National Portrait Gallery has revealed the first images of its proposed new design, part of a £35.5m redevelopment which is the biggest-ever at the building since it opened in 1896, and which would increase its gallery space by 20%.

The design, by Jamie Fobert Architects, proposes adding a new visitor entrance and public forecourt on the building’s north face, in addition to the existing entrance; it would also return the gallery’s East Wing to public use, and add new retail and catering facilities, and a new Learning Centre for visitors. The redevelopment would also see the gallery’s collection – which includes 250,000 photographs – redisplayed and reinterpreted across 40 refurbished galleries.

The NPG has now secured £27.4m of its £35.5m fundraising target, including £9.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and a £5 million grant from the Trustees of the Garfield Weston Foundation. It now hopes to raise further funds through an appeal for public donations, tagged the Make History campaign. The gallery aims to reach its target of £35.5m by spring 2019, in order to complete the project by 2023. An application for planning and listed building consent was submitted in January 2019 and building work is scheduled to start in summer 2020.

The redevelopment could prove a decisive change of fortune for the gallery, which in the financial year 2017/18 suffered a 10% decline in visitor numbers down to to 1,691,547. In its accounts, the gallery attributed the falling visitor numbers to external factors, stating: “concerns over security [following terrorist incidents in London], the rise in the cost of living, increased travel costs, and the transport disruptions affecting a number of key commuter lines into and stations in central London may all have played their part”.

The NPG’s income also fell over the financial year 2017/18, with ticket income from charging exhibitions down by 13% to £2.6m. According to The Art Newspaper, blockbuster exhibitions such as Cézanne Portraits (winter 2017-18) performed well, attracting 136,426 visitors, but two other shows were the worst-performing since the 1990s – photography show Gillian Wearing & Claude Cahun – Behind the mask, another mask (spring 2017), which attracted 18,000 visitors, and film-based show Tacita Dean: PORTRAIT (spring 2018), which attracted 15,000.

In April 2018, financial pressures induced the NPG to restructure “to manage down staff numbers”, resulting in 32 redundancies and agreed departures. Those who left included senior staff such as Tarnya Cooper, curatorial director, and Phillip Prodger, head of photographs – who had joined in June 2014 to replace Terence Pepper, the long-serving curator of photographs and head of the photographs collection from 1978-2013.

The NPG is known in photography circles for its Photographic Portrait Prize, which has been sponsored by law firm Taylor Wessing for the last 11 years. It also hosts high-profile photography shows such as the forthcoming Cindy Sherman retrospective, which will go on show from 27 June to 15 September, featuring around 180 works, including the seminal series Untitled Film Stills.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy