Karen Quinlan, new patron of the CAPO of the Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery Director Karen Quinlan said CAPO performs a very important function within the “delicate ecosystem” that exists to support artists. Photo: Kerrie Brewer.

National Portrait Gallery director Karen Quinlan was announced late last year as the new patron of the Capital Arts Patrons’ Organization (CAPO).

Drawn to the role due to the volunteer-oriented nature of the organization, Quinlan said she admires the way CAPO operates on its own.

“I’ve always been very impressed with volunteer organizations anyway; I myself started as a volunteer at the National Gallery in Melbourne, ”she said.

Quinlan said CAPO performs a very important function within the “delicate ecosystem” that exists to support artists.

“The good thing about them is that they connect with the business community to encourage donations that can then help artists in their work.

“This opportunity that CAPO presents… it’s about creating opportunities for artists,” she said. “That’s why I work in an art gallery.

Quinlan replaced internationally renowned Canberra artist Patricia Piccinini, who had held the position since 2018.

After the height of COVID-19 restrictions made the travel required for the role impossible from Piccinini’s home in Melbourne, Quinlan was sought out as an ideal replacement, based locally and held in high regard among the artistic community.

Having lived in Canberra since taking on her role at the Portrait Gallery in late 2018, Quinlan said that forging closer ties with the local art community was another factor that motivated her to take on the role of CAPO patron. .

“I haven’t had a lot of interaction with the local artist community here yet, but I hope it gives me a better connection with what’s going on locally here in Canberra,” she said.

“We have artists in this collection who are based in Canberra and we work with artists from Canberra in some of our exhibitions, so it’s just another platform for me to be engaged with the community at large. “


From art teacher to arts administrator

National Portrait Gallery Karen Quinlan CAPO
Since becoming director of the National Portrait Gallery in late 2018, Karen Quinlan says she has enjoyed her time in Canberra very much.
Photo: Kerrie Brewer.

Quinlan’s journey to lead a national institution started small and has been filled with hard work and success along the way.

Originally a visual arts teacher, she took a keen interest in the National Gallery of Victoria’s fashion and textile collection, which led to her volunteering there.

After a while, she was offered a position at NGV as Assistant Curator.

“I imagined I couldn’t find a job there, but I did,” she said.

From there, Quinlan joined the Bendigo Art Gallery, first as a curator before becoming director in 2000, a role she held until she joined the National Portrait Gallery in 2018.

In Bendigo, Quinlan reinvented the gallery by rethinking their program; to bring back large international exhibitions into the fold, which she said has been “very successful”.

“I did this for 18 years, which is actually how long it takes for my two kids to grow up,” she smiles.

“And then I was approached to apply for this job, and I was good to go.

“I’ve always had a strong interest in portraiture in my own research, so this seemed like the right time and place to come.”


National portrait gallery
After facing external disruptions during her first two years as director, Karen Quinlan said she believes the Gallery is “really starting to move forward somewhere.”

Since becoming director of the portrait gallery, Quinlan has said she has enjoyed her time in Canberra very much, despite the flood of external disruption she faced in her first two years.

The building was closed for essential renovations in April 2019, which saw the gallery move from its premises in Parkes to the Old Parliament for six months, where the first iteration of NPG took shape in the early 1990s.

“It was nice for me to be in this building, where it came from,” Quinlan said.

After the renovations were completed in October 2019, everything was relocated before a summer all Canberrans can remember – severe bushfires, smoky haze, hail, and then COVID-19 – passed.

“You can dream and dream and dream, but I haven’t really had a chance to follow through on some of the things I wanted to do,” she said.

Since the Gallery reopened in September 2020, Quinlan is now at the point where she feels she is “really starting to go somewhere.”

“It’s been a bit of a stop-start, stop-start, but I feel like we now have the potential to really reinvent part of the program and start to really push the boundaries, which I love. to do with the galleries.

“So it’s exciting; change takes time.

“The portraits speak to you, they are really accessible, and they tell amazing stories about Australians. “

Karen quinlan

Going forward, Quinlan is keen to forge relationships with other national portrait galleries around the world, while also establishing links nationally with state galleries and contemporary Australian artists.

“I work with historical and contemporary, Australian and global work, and I hope that with the continued revamping of the collection, we will continue to explore what we have here and present it to the public,” she said. declared.

Something that has stood out for Quinlan since taking on the role is the affinity people have for the institution.

“People love the Portrait Gallery,” she said.

“It’s a very beautiful building, it’s easy to move around and you can see everything and of course the portraits speak to you, they are really accessible and they tell amazing stories about Australians.”

And over the past two and a half years, she’s become very fond of it too.

“It’s an absolute pleasure to be able to work in an institution like this,” smiles Quinlan.


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Christopher A. Mayer