The National Gallery of Ireland’s new director will come from the National Gallery, London, where she is Director of Collections and Research, a position that in itself makes her a high-status catch. Caroline Campbell, the first woman to serve as NGI director, brings an exceptionally impressive track record to the job. From Belfast, she studied history at Oxford and completed an MA and a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she was Curator of Paintings from 2005 to 2012. She also worked at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and was previously at the National Gallery as Curator of Early Renaissance Paintings. A curatorial leadership fellowship in New York added another string to her bow. Her book, Power, People and Painting, an ambitious history of art told through the lens of fifteen cities at crucial moments in time, is due out next spring.
Campbell has in the past emphasised the importance of the visual in museums – as opposed, one presumes, to the increasing proliferation of labels telling you, as viewer, what to think. She has championed the Warburg Institute Library, an invaluable facility that the University of London tried to ditch nearly ten years ago, in what would have been a piece of cultural vandalism.
She will arrive at the NGI following Sean Rainbird’s ten years at the helm, a period that saw the gallery’s much-anticipated reopening after a massive refurbishment and enhancement. Vermeer and Canaletto notwithstanding, there has been a general inclination towards modernising, with the enlistment of Sean Scully and other curatorial initiatives. The thorny issue of admission charges has sputtered along.
The NGI directorship may sound like an accolade but it is unquestionably demanding. Diplomacy is certainly needed, as well as leadership. Involved constituencies include: a board that, history suggests, can be tricky; diverse curatorial and professional teams; a seasoned practical staff; departmental and political overseers; and a public that rightly retains a keen proprietorial interest. There’s certainly much to be done in the scholarly and curatorial spheres, with a great deal of Irish art history still to be explored and used as sources for exhibitions. The evidence is that audiences respond enthusiastically to such initiatives. Caroline Campbell currently lives in London. It is not yet clear whether she will base herself in Ireland or commute.