Populist confirmed as new head of National Gallery

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The Independent Online

The new director of the National Gallery in London is to come from the institution next door, Downing Street confirmed yesterday.

Dr Charles Saumarez Smith will take over the post in Trafalgar Square after spending the past eight years running the National Portrait Gallery, where he has overseen the opening of a £16m extension and doubled visitor figures from 600,000 to 1.3 million. He succeeds Neil MacGregor, who leaves the National after 15 years for the British Museum.

The National's trustees said Dr Saumarez Smith had demonstrated "the qualities of scholarship, leadership and communication that are required to lead the gallery through the next decade".

It was third time lucky for the 47-year-old, who had also applied for the recent vacancies at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

He was an academic for the first part of his career, winning a first in art history from Cambridge before further studies at Harvard, taking a PhD and becoming the head of research at the Victoria and Albert.

At the National Portrait Gallery, he combined scholarship and a flair for attracting visitors with more populist shows such as the photography exhibition Icons of Pop, which would have been unheard of under previous regimes. The Mario Testino photography show has been much criticised, yet has drawn more than 10,000 visitors a day.

Yet the £16m Ondaatje Wing extension has also drawn new audiences to works, such as the distinctive Tudor collection, that had previously been neglected by the casual visitor.

Dr Saumarez Smith said: "The National Gallery is evidently a great national institution of exceptional international significance with a wonderful collection. It will be extremely nice to have contact with it.

"As a neighbour for the last eight years, I have greatly admired the range and quality of its exhibitions, the effectiveness of its corporate governance and Neil's inspirational leadership. I look forward to maintaining its traditions and facing the challenges of its future."