Nicholas Penny: 'The rising cost of art could create a national divide'

Monday Interview: The National Gallery's director, tells Rob Sharp why it's too expensive to take the museum's best-known works to the regions

Nicholas Penny stands peering at Jan Gossaert's The Adoration of the Kings, his nose barely three inches from the canvas. The Flemish master's brightly coloured altar-piece transplants the Nativity to Europe, and is one of the key works at an exhibition opening at the National Gallery later this month. Penny points at the depiction of an infant Christ handling gold coins. "Maybe he was a philanthropist," he says, with a smirk.

Walking around the National Gallery's hallowed spaces, it soon becomes clear that Penny, the institution's director since 2008, does not suffer fools gladly. An accomplished curator, author and academic, he was educated at Cambridge, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and was senior sculpture curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington before taking his current role.

Penny's pronouncements are similarly heavyweight. Since he took the job he has criticised galleries' apparent obsession with "blockbuster" exhibitions featuring high-profile works ("It's not a beauty competition"); the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square ("We have a real problem with vandals and louts"); and measuring success in visitor numbers ("There is nothing more exhausting than box ticking").

Now, he believes there is another impediment to the public's enjoyment of works like the Gossaert, which is too fragile to be loaned to other galleries. "The serious problem people don't discuss is transport costs," he says. "It costs less to go to Berlin than it does to go to Birmingham. People tend to say why don't institutions send works of art to the regions? But it is more difficult for people living in Grimsby to make an outing to see national collections in London than at any time in the last 100 years. I think we are becoming two nations if we don't do something."

He added: "We talk about creating incentives for corporations to give money to museums. What would be good if they made special provisions for school parties to be taken to great national collections in London."

Penny, 61, who is waspish, well-attired and cutting, is fiercely protective of the gallery's 2,300 works, of which he emphasises a relatively high number are permanently on display. He says he is "more cautious than other institutions about loaning out work", adding that he shouldn't "take risks". His job, even in straitened times, is to protect the specific Titian or Van Gogh that the public may have travelled to see. He rattles off an anecdote about visiting the V&A to view a specific piece and the member of staff he questioned not being able to "even spell it".

It was such old-fashioned zeal which made Penny's appointment to the gallery's directorship welcome among his contemporaries. Born in 1949, he was educated at Shrewsbury School before beginning his meteoric ascent. By 32, he was appointed to the Slade Professorship at Oxford University, one of British art's most prestigious academic positions.

In 1991 he identified the Duke of Northumberland's Madonna of the Pinks as a genuine Raphael, not a copy as was previously supposed. He has written numerous academic and more populist books, his latest, Director's Choice, published last month, being an accessible series of essays about 37 of his favourite National Gallery paintings.

His latest position has been similarly successful. He has overseen a year-on-year increase in visitor numbers, which stood at 4.78 million in 2009 according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. Nationally, this is second only to the British Museum. Last year he was successful in leading a high-profile campaign to raise £50m to purchase Titian's monumental masterpiece Diana and Actaeon for Britain.

But he has also apparently revised his anti-blockbuster stance. Last year, upon announcing the gallery's Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals exhibition, which closed last month, he said it was important to have "intelligent exhibitions about great artists and popular artists as well as some exhibitions about forgotten artists." He has also gone on the record since to say he has "no problem with popular exhibitions, merely with exhibitions designed primarily to be popular." The reasons seem clear. In 2008, a leaked internal memo showing visitor numbers showed that two exhibitions of obscure Italian painters attracted tens of thousands fewer than their organisers had budgeted for. These days Gossaert's Renaissance, which opens on 23 February, will feature 80 of the artist's most important works.

Penny is keen to emphasise the diversity of the gallery's offerings. Alongside the Canaletto exhibition, contemporary British painter Ben Johnson completed a panorama inspired by Canaletto's The Stonemason's Yard in front of gallery visitors. "Because we don't collect contemporary art, we try to exhibit it in judicious ways," says Penny, perched on a bench in one of the gallery's quieter rooms. "One thing is for sure, by seeing the preparatory work people understood a hell of a lot more about the traditional pictures in the gallery. I'd like to make the National Gallery a place where more art students work. That was one of the reasons it was founded."

"Many of the questions I've been asked are to do with appealing to the young," says Penny, spinning on his heel. "One of the most extraordinary things about the gallery is the wide range of people we appeal to. I am very pleased that is the case.

"We provide excitement for the young, solace for the old and a mixture of solace and excitement for the middle-aged."

Instead of attracting crowds, he suggests a more modern problem is how to cope with overcrowding, something which was all too evident at Tate Modern's Gauguin: Maker of Myth, which closed last month. "We need to think how we are going to manage when we get to six million visitors a year," he says.

"That many visitors means a lot more to us than it does to some other institutions." William Wilkins' neoclassical building, while grandiose, is unlikely to bear up well if visitor numbers continue to surge.

Penny has a somewhat ambivalent attitude to crowds, admitting that the gallery's Trafalgar Square location is a mixed blessing. "You can't miss us, unless some monstrous temporary edifice has been placed in front of us," he says. He feels the square's ongoing Fourth Plinth competition, won by Katharina Fritsch for an ultramarine blue cockerel last month, is not "respecting the architecture of the square". "Trafalgar Square is not a very successful architectural ensemble, but it could be made far more successful if people tried to treat it as a piece of co-ordinated architecture," he adds.

"It does have many disadvantages, such as Nelson's Column, which I think is an architectural disaster, but you have to work around it. I don't think people should give up."

He believes that public squares should be used for "ordinary promenading", and attacks the trend of public parks being used for "all sorts of commercial activities" such as open-air rock concerts. He adds: "It's a worldwide problem but I am against public parks being wrecked."

Penny is looking forward to another busy year. There is the continuing refurbishment programme on gallery ceilings in order to improve lighting conditions, as well as the second in an annual series of work by 30 residents of HM Young Offender Institution Feltham, opening this month.

Larger shows will include a display of Italian altar-pieces in July and a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in November. Meanwhile, Penny is positive about the Government's "real desire to find solutions" to the public arts funding black hole, the full repercussions of which will emerge over the next few months. "There may also be ways in which we can do more along the French model of encouraging businesses to support the acquisition of national treasures," he says. He believes the public would not stand for the introduction of entrance fees to make up the shortfall, but thinks they need to be made more aware of where their money goes. "I object to the fact that people maybe haven't felt they have had a stake in the National Gallery because they haven't given money to it or haven't paid to get in," he says.

The gallery recently announced Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, a collaboration between it and the Royal Opera House. This, it is hoped, will bring the gallery's treasures to a new international audience who are in town for the Olympics. But, Penny hastily adds, this is not to say that the crumbling edifices of Gossaert's Biblical scenes are an insufficient attraction.

A life in brief

* Born in 1949, Nicholas Penny was educated at independent co-educational Shrewsbury School and Cambridge University, before obtaining a doctorate from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. His career as a lecturer in art history began at Manchester University and in 1980, he was appointed the prestigious Slade Professorship at Oxford University. In 1990, Penny joined the National Gallery, where he correctly identified The Madonna of the Pinks as a genuine Raphael rather than a copy, as previously believed. In 2002 Penny made an unsuccessful bid for the Directorship of the National, however when the incumbent director, Charles Saumarez Smith, resigned in 2007 Penny was appointed his successor.