Entertainment Arts Regional art gallery pioneer takes top job at National Portrait Gallery
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Regional art gallery pioneer takes top job at National Portrait Gallery

Karen Quinlan is moving to Canberra after 18 years heading the Bendigo Art Gallery in central Victoria. Photo: National Portrait Gallery
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The woman who put a regional Victorian art gallery on the international map is the new head of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

As director of the Bendigo Art Gallery in central Victoria, Karen Quinlan brought several blockbuster exhibitions to the regional city, including events showcasing the fashions of Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe.

Ms Quinlan started at the gallery in 1996 as curator and was then appointed director in 2000, so she was at the helm for nearly 20 years.

The success of Ms Quinlan’s exhibitions was dubbed ‘the Bendigo effect’ and inspired other galleries across Australia.

Her program attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors from across Australia and revitalised what was a traditional regional gallery of paintings and sculpture.

The 2012 exhibition of dresses worn by Grace Kelly drew more than 100,000 people to the Bendigo Art Gallery. Photo: ABC News

A review of the Grace Kelly: Style Icon exhibition held in 2012 found the event pumped $17 million into the local economy.

“I have been encouraged to be ambitious and push the boundaries, and this has seen Bendigo Art Gallery redefine what it means to be a regional gallery,” Ms Quinlan said.

“I was able to learn on the job, develop an incredible set of skills and foster important relationships with leading art institutions around the world.”

Lingerie designed by Robert French in the 1960s on display at the Bendigo Art Gallery’s ‘Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion’ Exhibition. Photo: Bendigo Art Gallery

Ms Quinlan will take up her new position as director of the National Portrait Gallery in December.

“I am drawn to its uniqueness, its narrative and its collection, both visually and philosophically,” she said.

“It celebrates our success, our inventiveness, our artistry, our cleverness as a nation and our identity.

“It must continue to collect works that symbolise the breadth and depth of Australian life.”

‘Considerable loss’

The City of Greater Bendigo credits Ms Quinlan with giving the local gallery an international reputation for high-quality exhibitions.

“Under Karen’s guidance, the gallery has undergone a significant period of growth and change, and is widely recognised as one of Australia’s largest and most successful regional galleries,” acting chief executive Bernie O’Sullivan said.

“Karen’s departure is a considerable loss for our organisation, but her appointment to the National Portrait Gallery of Australia reflects the standing of both Karen and Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia’s arts industry.

An offering from The White Wedding Dress: 200 Years Of Wedding Fashions from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, at Bendigo in 2011. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum

“The National Portrait Gallery is very fortunate to be welcoming such an accomplished, strategic and visionary leader.”

The Bendigo Art Gallery’s chairperson, Garry Quinn, thanked Ms Quinlan for her years of service.

“Karen has made an indelible contribution to the gallery and her vision and drive have elevated this institution beyond all expectations,” Mr Quinn said.

“Although we are very sorry to see her go, we wish Karen every success with her well-deserved new position as the director of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia and have no doubt she will continue to be very successful.”

An exhibition about Marilyn Monroe, including this giant sculpture, was one of the hit events Ms Quinlan brought to Bendigo. Photo: ABC Open

The National Portrait Gallery has offered a congratulations to Ms Quinlan, while also thanking the outgoing director Angus Trumble for his work over five years in the role.

“We are thrilled by Karen’s appointment,” the gallery’s chairperson Helen Nugent said.

“She will build on and deepen the National Portrait Gallery of Australia’s commitment to reflecting what it means to be an Australian.”

Federal Arts Minister Mitch Fifield hailed the contribution of Mr Trumble, and described Ms Quinlan as “highly regarded” in the Australian arts community.