Vale to former National Portrait Gallery Director, Angus Trumble

The gallery sector saddened by loss of an exuberant scholar with the passing of Angus Trumble.

News has filtered across the sector this week that Angus Trumble had suddenly passed away (1964 – 2022).  The former exuberant gallery director and scholar was just 58.

Trumble held the post of Director at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra from 2014-2018. Trumble was the fourth director in the National Portrait Gallery’s history, appointed under the Brandis Ministry in 2013.

In November 2017, offering 14 months’ notice, Trumble advised that he would be leaving the Gallery to pursue his own writing projects.

In an exit interview he told ArtsHub that he, ‘felt that particularly for a single genre art museum, it is vital to keep it fresh – to keep it lively – by having regular change in the Director. I thought five years was just right. If you stayed on, you run the risk of becoming repetitive and a bit dull.’

Most would agree that Trumble was anything but dull; tributes this week have often cited him as a funny, brilliant raconteur, scholar, curator and friend.

Moments like these throw up the best of memories. One of Trumble’s finest was as part of the Museum Dance Off – a world-wide initiative in 2018 – when Trumble joined his staff in skit to Kylie Minogue’s hit song Can’t Get You Out Of My Head.

It was that energetic personality that many will miss. But it is not only what defined Trumble.

A first time director with a long time legacy

In a formal statement the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) paid tribute to Trumble this week, stating: ‘Angus was unfailing in his commitment to the institution, at the same time infusing all areas of the Gallery’s work with his distinctive wit, charm, erudition and scholarship.’

‘Visitors and staff alike were drawn to his intellect and creativity,’ the NPG added.

Trumble guided the institution through some challenging times, including the beginning of the building’s structural repairs in 2018. During his tenure the Gallery reached many significant milestones including becoming a statutory authority, the establishment of the Foundation and the 20th anniversary celebrations, and significant collection growth.

The exhibitions developed during his time demonstrate his capactity to bridge the popular with the academic, exhibitions such as In the Flesh, So Fine: Contemporary women artists make Australian history, The Popular Pet Show, Dempsey’s People: A folio of British street portraits 1824–1844 and Starstruck: Australian movie portraits.

Trumble said his proudest moment was an exhibition with a very light footprint and small visitation, Dempsey’s people: A folio of British street portraits 1824–1844 (exhibited 2017).

‘It was cheap to put on, and yet this was an artist who represented a whole forgotten iceberg of journeyman portrait painters who produced thousands of portraits in the 19th century, that ended up in junk shops. I am pleased to say that will tour to the Tate [in London],’ explained Trumble.

He was also a scholar of world renown.

In an earlier interview with ArtsHub he said: ‘I was a first time director, which was a challenge for everybody. I had worked for two directors – Ron Radford at the Art Gallery of South Australia and Amy Meyers at Yale [in the United States, where Trumble was posted for 11 years in a curatorial capacity]. They are as different from each other as could possibly be, but that experience did end up giving me a very clear picture of the kind of Director I wanted to be and I feel I have achieved that.’

Key to that was placing his trust in his staff.

He continued: ‘You never know what is going to work, and what won’t work …You need to be prepared to take risk – and I know that is such a cliché. One thing a director has to do is to say, “This is what we are doing.” It can be difficult because people give you every reason for not doing it. But you just have to say, “I have heard you and I respect your view, but we are doing it anyway.”’

Read: Angus Trumble reflects on his time at the National Portrait Gallery

Mid interview with Trumble the gallery’s fire alarm tripped – but nothing fazed him; he continued on full sentence, not missing a beat – a testament to his zesty, light character.

His lasting comment which I carry forward was: ‘My great hope is that we never lose sight that our most important philanthropist is the taxpayer through the Commonwealth. The entire Commonwealth budget for all collection agencies would buy half a torpedo in a submarine – we are not talking large sums of money. I would hate to think we lose sight of that.’

Who was Angus Trumble?

Born in Melbourne, Trumble studied fine arts and history at the University of Melbourne, graduating in 1986, before interning at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and studying for a master’s degree at the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome and the University of Melbourne.

From 1987 to 1991 he served as aide to Governor of Victoria, J. Davis McCaughey.

In 1994 Trumble won a Fulbright Scholarship for further study at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. In 1996 he was appointed associate curator (and later curator) of European art at the Art Gallery of South Australia. He curated and wrote the catalogues for exhibitions including Bohemian London and Love & Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria.

He was appointed curator (later senior curator) of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in May 2003, where he served until 2014, when he was appointed director of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia.

Between 2019 and 2022 he was a senior research fellow at the National Museum of Australia. In 2015 he was named a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

He was the author of A Brief History of the Smile (2003) and The Finger: A Handbook (2010), and co-author (with Andrea Wolk Rager) of Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century.

He was a regular contributor to The Times Literary Supplement, The Burlington Magazine, the Paris Review, Esopus Magazine, and The Australian Book Review.

Trumble died on 8 October 2022, at home.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina