LONDON — Visitors walking into the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) are greeted by Tracey Emin’s striking etchings. Now depicted on the bronze doors of the London museum are 45 women; on the roof, the busts of 18 famous portrait painters — all men — peer down, as they have since 1896, when the NPG’s current home near Trafalgar Square was built.
This is the perfect summary of the new and improved NPG, which has just reopened after an ambitious three-year, £41.3 million (~$52.4 million) reconstruction. Emin, arguably best known for her controversial work “My Bed” (1998), and the NPG, mostly famous for its extensive Tudor and Victorian portraits, are not a natural pairing. But the museum is hoping to turn its stuffy image on its head.
In general, it succeeds. As soon as one enters, the brand-new “History Makers Now” gallery displays the work of contemporary Britons. Sure, it still contains two prim portraits of King Charles and the Prince and Princess of Wales. But there are also delightful portraits of comparatively ordinary British citizens: a statue of author Jacqueline Wilson, an oil of a relaxed Ed Sheeran, and another of soccer player Lucy Bronze, among many others.
Another big change: many more women. “Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture,” a three-year project in partnership with the Chanel Culture Fund, aims to enhance the representation of women in the collection. A new display shows a range of self-portraits by women that defy the typical male gaze, its subjects looking directly into the camera, challenging expectations. The best is the cheeky “Sarah Lucas (‘Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs’)” (1996), with Lucas posing in jeans with two fried eggs on her chest.
“We have achieved 48% portraits of women after 1900,” said Assistant Curator Constantia Nicolaides during a press event, speaking about the many new works added. One of them is Jann Haworth and Liberty Blake’s new mural depicting 130 women from British history titled “Work in Progress” (2021–22), inspired by the album cover Haworth herself created for the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Among the mural’s less-expected inclusions are COVID-19 vaccine inventor Sarah Gilbert, nurse Elizabeth Anionwu, and wheelchair racer Tanni Grey-Thompson.
Diversity is harder to achieve, given that portraits in the United Kingdom have traditionally been of White Britons. Only 3% of the portraits before the rehang were of people of color; that figure has now increased to 11%. Recent commissions and acquisitions include a self-portrait by Gambian-British photographer Khadija Saye, who died in the Grenfell fire of 2017, and Olivia Rose’s photograph of British rapper Stormzy with his mother. Old displays have been updated to draw attention to the legacy of colonialism and slavery. A 19th-century portrait of Toussaint L’Overture, an enslaved person who helped overthrow French rule in Haiti and later become governor-general of the world’s first Black republic, is displayed prominently. NPG’s proud new acquisition is Joshua Reynolds’s “Portrait of Omai” (c. 1776), which depicts a Polynesian man who visited Britain in 1774. It was acquired after a massive fundraising campaign, though some critics think it is orientalist.
So far, so good. But it may not be enough. The NPG’s neighbor, the National Gallery, reported 2.7 million visits in 2022, down 55% from its 2019 figure of 6 million. Many arts institutions are dependent on tourists, who have still not returned to London in the same numbers as before the pandemic. And the latest available data on visitor demographics, while a few years old now, suggests that those going to museums are overwhelmingly White British; in the year 2018–2019, 51% of White people had visited a museum, compared with 33% of Black people and 43% of Asian people.
Funding is also a challenge, as government grants for many museums and theaters were slashed last year. Institutions now rely more and more on unpredictable philanthropy, and willing donors may not always be the right kind. In 2022, the NPG lost one of its sources of funding when it parted ways with British Petroleum in the midst of an ongoing reckoning about the links between big oil and art.
Meanwhile, other options for art lovers, like immersive art, are rapidly expanding. There has been a flood of immersive art and VR exhibitions in London in the last few years, transforming works by van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dalí, and Klimt into attractive “experiences.” Frameless, London’s first permanent immersive art exhibition, covers 30,000 square feet, allowing viewers to wander through art by Monet, Cézanne, and Canaletto. A whopping 200,000 people visited the Dalí and van Gogh immersive art exhibitions in London in the last year.
Now, living artists are joining in. David Hockney has partnered with the new space Lightroom for a show titled David Hockney: Bigger and Closer (not smaller and further away), which invites visitors to “see the world through his eyes.” In fact, the NPG will open a traditional exhibition of Hockney’s portraits in November, at the same time as his immersive show continues to draw crowds.
“The advancement in both technology and mapping techniques has led to more artistically complex presentations,” Mario Iacampo, CEO of Exhibition Hub, which stages the van Gogh and Dalí exhibitions, told Hyperallergic. “The public has discovered this approach, truly enjoyed it, and is now asking for more.”
Immersive art is particularly attractive for children and young families: Noise is tolerated, children run about, and there is none of the hushed atmosphere enforced in museum galleries. It can also be a great educational tool for students. At the Dalí exhibition, interactive displays explained the artist’s deep interest in science, cybernetics, and new technology, with video and audio clips. And, of course, you can take a selfie against the backdrop of van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” a big selling point for the Instagram generation.
Does this group of art lovers prefer to be in a Monet painting rather than look at it? Most involved do not think immersive art and traditional galleries are in competition. “I think we offer a different experience. The two can complement each other,” Nicolaides told Hyperallergic.
But with immersive galleries charging an average of £20 (~$25) per person and the cost-of-living crisis in the UK getting worse, it’s likely audiences may find their way back to free museums, as Nicolaides hopes — and institutions in London will be looking at the NPG to see if its strategy works. Like the new mural it has commissioned, it’s a work in progress.