Extremely tall, and looking more like a director and less like a luvvie, Sandy Nairne warmly shook my hand and suggested we start our interview by having a brief look at the gallery itself. Given it is my favourite gallery in London, the fact that the director was going to give me a tiny private tour was a dream opportunity. During our tour, he pointed out certain works and told me a bit about their stories and their role in fulfilling the aims of the museum. He also filled me in on the types of people who get to be on the walls in painted, sculpted or photographic form. There are some splendid secrets and I cannot possibly reveal them!
Back in his office, Sandy and I had an energetic conversation accompanied by a welcome cup of coffee.
For Sandy, a virtuous person does things that contribute to the public good - things that make a positive impact on the world in both small and large ways. He thinks about virtue actively - although he may not use the word "virtue" itself. It strikes me, however, that he both looks for and welcomes opportunities to serve others: he has various pro bono advisory roles (he is an advisor on fabric to St Paul's Cathedral, for example), he enjoys nurturing junior curators, and he takes time to manage his team at the Portrait Gallery sensitively and bravely, creating a safe place where they can generate ideas and work together. In all cases he uses his skills and experience to serve others. A self-confessed optimist who also is public-minded, Sandy gets a great deal of quiet pleasure when he thinks he has made a positive impact on the people around him.
Sandy believes he was influenced by his parents who stressed the importance of "giving back", and led by example. He believes positive role models are crucial if we want to embed virtue more widely in our society, and that positive role models are everywhere if we choose to see them: they are standing up for strangers on busses as well as heading up organisations. Sandy does believe that "doing good" makes people feel good although he concedes that people may not always be able to articulate the connection between the two. The biggest barrier to bringing virtue to consciousness is social deprivation, including poor health and education, which negatively impacts people's behaviour and their interactions with others. Social deprivation prevents people from even realising the many ways - large and small - in which they can contribute and, as a result, make themselves feel more positive.
Sandy claims he is no preacher and he refused to be drawn on what he would advocate people change "on Monday morning" in order to embed virtue in their lives. He was clear, however, that the gallery has an important role to play in providing the public with an opportunity to be inspired and intrigued by the lives of others and maybe, just maybe, be transformed.
For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)
Related links: http://www.npg.org.uk/