No sooner had Ian Dejardin become the Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery than the Gallery was voted Britain's favourite visitor attraction. On accepting the award, Ian said, "There's something magical about Dulwich Picture Gallery - it's a top-drawer gallery and we get visitors from all over the world - but it has the great advantage of being seen by the people of South London as their own particular gallery. It offers everything a world-class gallery should offer, but also a great sense of community for local people. There's always something going on - exhibitions, concerts, children's events, art classes - and this reflects in our very active Friends' group. I am sure that they and all our devoted local supporters must be responsible for this wonderful vote of confidence."
Ian Dejardin has inherited a Gallery that has a great following, a wonderful collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century painting in a building which has been copied by gallery-designers ever since. The Gallery used to quote the Sunday Telegraph, which described it as 'the most beautiful small art gallery in the world.' But that little word 'small' bothers Ian Dejardin - "Dulwich isn't small, it's the perfect size. Other galleries are too big!" He also wants to bring the Gallery's own amazing collection of pictures back to the centre of its activities. The Gallery is now so well known and well visited for its exhibitions people almost forget the quality of the collection - the three Rembrandts, seven Poussins, eleven Rubenses. But since they are always there - unless they have gone on loan or to be conserved - they are taken for granted. Ian believes that a modern diverse multi-cultural audience needs new approaches to the interpretation of many of the old masters in the Gallery. You can't take for granted that all visitors understand classical mythology or recognise stories from the Bible or understand the Italian Baroque. The artists represented in the collection were the Jackson Pollocks or Damien Hirsts of their day - he believes that the Gallery should be interpreting them for a modern visitor in just the same way.
Soon there will be information about the history of the Gallery and the paintings on handy paddleboards strategically placed round the Gallery to provide much-needed context. Meanwhile the Gallery is looking into better signage and what is now called wayfinding. This will mean improved sign posts from the railway stations and other approaches, and better information within and around the Gallery. And this is not just about finding your way - signs also signal importance and 'buzz'.
Exhibitions remain crucial for attracting visitors - they will be fascinating, challenging and scholarly and aimed at as broad a market as possible. Luckily the competitive thrust of having to produce blockbusters that drives the destination galleries in central London actually works in Dulwich's favour. It leaves an enormous field of unexplored, under-valued and neglected areas of art history. A blockbuster in Dulwich would be a grain of sand for the National Gallery or the Tate, but there is a large untapped specialist audience for many of the artists who would never be considered for those venues. He is interested in developing series of related exhibitions like the ones Dulwich already does - 20th century British titans like John Piper, Henry Moore and - now - Graham Sutherland, illustrators, Dutch Old Masters - and in view of next year's Winslow Homer exhibition (the first one man show of the iconic American artist Winslow Homer to be held in a museum in this country) Ian would like to expand that to a small series of American-themed shows. And the Murillo show in 2000 could be followed up by a series of Spanish seventeenth century artists.
He is keen that more of the collection should be shown and is contemplating a nineteenth century hang - that is, pictures floor to ceiling. It would certainly alleviate the Gallery's storage problems and old friends that have been hidden away would be seen again. It is also testimony to the Gallery's great success in conserving its 'reserve' collection that he can contemplate such a hang. Then there's the garden.. He would love to see more use of it for sculpture. And maybe the area surrounded by Rick Mather's glass and bronze cloister of 2000 could be developed so as to provide more of a contemplative place for visitors to sit. What other London gallery has a garden like the one at Dulwich?
Ian Dejardin didn't set out to become a museum professional. He was studying classics when he discovered 'fine art' was a subject he could study - before that he had assumed it was just a hobby. As a treat in his second year he took 'Fine Art 1' as a subsidiary subject, and found, to his astonishment, that much of what he was hearing was already familiar to him. Indeed, he won essay prizes over the heads of those for whom it was their main subject. So he switched to art history and got a First. But a Phd that he embarked on proved to be a false start: he gave it up and returned to Edinburgh where his sister asked him to help with a small business designing and making knitwear. His own designs started selling and, setting up on his own, he decided that as he'd somehow started a cottage industry, he should have a cottage. He found one in the Lake District and there he made and designed his knitwear. A move to Manchester seven years later brought to his attention the diploma in art gallery and museum studies offered by Manchester University at that time. He went for it, was accepted and so finally embarked on his career path. His first job was curatorial assistant to English Heritage. Within a year he had moved to the Royal Academy where he looked after their permanent collection. Back to English Heritage as their curator of paintings in the London Historic Houses, he moved swiftly up the ranks ending up as head of the historic team for the London region. Then in 1997, the job of curator at Dulwich came up. Dulwich offered the kind of focus on a single glorious collection that he wanted; and besides, the Gallery was poised at that moment for its exciting refurbishment project - he got the job, beginning work in January 1998.
Ian grew up in Edinburgh, with a clever older sister; Susan (the knitter) who also got a first class honours degree and eventually became a lawyer. He modelled himself very much on her, teaching himself to play the piano in emulation, and then tagging along with her when she went skating at the local ice-rink. He now thinks he must have been a severe trial to her - especially since he went on to steal her thunder by becoming a little ice skating champ. He remembers coming to London aged seven, already a veteran competitor, to compete in a national competition at Wembley Arena. The BBC asked him to skate his programme one extra time, for the evening news. He did so very happily - ever the showman - but when it came to the final performance he was tired, fell and only came in third. He still nurses a grudge against the BBC. Nevertheless, Ian is still to be found skating on Thursday evenings at Streatham Ice Rink, where he trained for the championships when he was a boy. He's having lessons to brush up those old skills. And has becoming Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery made any difference to his life style? No, he still lives in Brixton and bicycles to work.