A fine portrait: the career of national art gallery director Angus Trumble

Alumnus Angus Trumble (TC 1983) has made a name for himself as a leader in the arts sector, holding senior management positions in galleries around Australia and overseas. As he prepares to step down from his current role as Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Angus reflects on some of the highlights and challenges of his career.

Fronting the Senate estimates committee is unlikely to be a career goal for many fine arts and history graduates, but for Angus Trumble, museum directorship, and all that goes with it, was always part of the plan. 

‘I really set my sights on becoming an art museum director and in the end, that’s exactly what happened,’ he says. 

While taking a somewhat unusual path to the position via a curatorial career, which doesn’t particularly align to the demands of what is essentially a CEO role, Angus successfully climbed to the top of the arts world, taking on positions such as Associate Curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia and Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art, and going on to tackle issues such as organisational restructures necessitated by budget cuts and rectification of major building defects. 

Having started his current job soon after the National Portrait Gallery became a statutory authority, Angus was also responsible for establishing the National Portrait Gallery Foundation, which now has $20 million under its belt – something Angus credits as a real achievement. 

While the Foundation has brought about increased financial independence for the national gallery, he says levels of public funding remain an issue. 

‘I think it’s true to say that, nationally, by any measure, we underfund the arts, culture and humanities in general. A lot of this comes down to vision at the very top of government,’ says Angus. He goes on to credit former prime ministers Holt and Whitlam as visionaries for the arts, but cites a flat economy and a focus on ‘more pressing things’ as reasoning for current funding and resourcing deficiencies. Angus doesn’t want the importance of culture to be undermined, however.

‘The arts in general are the prisms through which we see ourselves and others see us – they’re an indispensable part of the social fabric,’ he says. ‘Moreover, at a time when we are subject to an unprecedented wave of opinion-forming directed at us from other countries – I’m talking via social media and other subtle methods of opinion shaping – there is an even more vital need for Australian values to be projected into the community in the form of art, culture and, in our case, through the visual arts.’

To help promote and celebrate the national narrative, Angus has overseen one of the largest commissioning projects of the National Portrait Gallery’s history, the 20/20 exhibition, which was unveiled in October 2018 (and runs until 10 February 2019). The project celebrates the Gallery’s 20thanniversary through 20 new portraits of notable Australians, covering all manner of disciplines and achievements. ‘We’ve never really had more than two or three commissions on the go at any one time,’ says Angus. ‘So the idea that we were going to do 20 at once, and unveil them all at the same time, was a major amplification of the work we have done since the beginning.’

The execution of such a mammoth project has been a highlight for Angus, but he also notes some less-glossy projects as being deeply satisfying. Angus is quick to point to Dempsey’s People as an example, a folio of British street portraits from 1824–44. While Angus knew a collection of 52 portraits of everyday Britons would never be a blockbuster, it pieced together the story of artistic production in Regency England. Given its contribution to the scholarship of British art, the resultant folio has been shortlisted in London for this year’s William MB Berger Prize for British Art History.  

Come February 2019, Angus will gracefully bow out of the role he’s held for five years, feeling it’s time to let a new set of hands carry the Gallery forward. He will turn his attention to three book projects, including a novel, and will relish the opportunity to recharge the batteries. ‘I’ve never taken an extended break. I never had a gap year or anything like that,’ says Angus. ‘So, for me, this phase is a rather exciting experiment.’

Photo credit: Andrew Cowan

22/11/2018

Category: People