As he takes the helm at the House of Illustration, Colin McKenzie reflects on his career, which started with him becoming the first ever male secretary at the Barbican Centre.

Photo of Colin McKenzie

Director, House of Illustration (June 2014 – present)

I started as Director of the House of Illustration at the beginning of this month, just a month before the opening of our new building at Granary Square in the heart of King’s Cross and our first exhibition, Quentin Blake’s Inside Stories. It is a particularly exciting role as there is no other public gallery in the world dedicated to the art of illustration, so there is no model against which to compare ourselves and nothing to limit us in how we celebrate, publicise and explore illustration in all its forms.

I have known about the organisation since its creation in 2002 as this followed an exhibition of Quentin Blake’s work at the National Gallery with which I was involved. Following this exhibition, Quentin and a number of other leading illustrators decided that it was time that illustration was recognised and celebrated properly, and the House of Illustration was established as a charity. So, while we open our doors for the first time on 2nd July (in a wonderful new building which we share with the Art Fund), House of Illustration is already a vibrant and established organisation. Our programme of `housewarming` events has shown that there is huge demand for talks and events around the theme of illustration, and we have an exciting programme of exhibitions in place to follow Inside Stories.

Aside from ensuring that, without any regular public funding, House of Illustration remains sustainable, I see the major opportunity ahead being the creation of a real home for illustration that reflects its unique accessibility as well as its diversity.

Freelance Arts Consultant (April 2013 – May 2014)

Before joining House of Illustration I spent an enjoyable year working as an independent arts consultant, specifically focussing on fundraising but also covering governance, business planning, and management and organisational structure. Having done quite a bit of mentoring and training on fundraising throughout my career, I had always wondered what it would be like to work as a consultant. After seven years as Director of The Charleston Trust I was keen for a change that would give me a chance to see how different kinds (and sizes) of arts organisations worked, at the same time as allowing me to stand back and think about what I would like to do next. As well as giving me a real insight into some wonderful organisations I hadn’t known before, the role of consultant gave me the opportunity to work more flexibly, with both my wife and I working part time following the birth of our second child – a very precious time that I felt I had missed out on when our first child was born.

Director, The Charleston Trust (June 2006 – March 2013)

Charleston is a house museum situated in the most beautiful open countryside in Sussex. It was the country retreat of the group of artists, writers and thinkers known as the Bloomsbury Group. I became Director there following 12 years as Head of Development at the National Gallery. I had long realised that no other job in fundraising could match the excitement of my role at the Gallery and, because fundraising provides an unparalleled understanding of all aspects of the way museums and galleries work, as well as considerable experience of acting as an organisation’s advocate or ambassador, I felt I wanted to run a museum or gallery. In Charleston I found something that, although local, had a profile and brand that was not just national but international. Its physical heritage – the collection and the house itself – had always interested me hugely. As a student I was amongst its first visitors when it opened to the public in 1986, but it is an organisation that has so many other strands and stories.

During my time there, I was particularly proud of the way in which we created new audiences for the Trust’s work through the development of its public programmes, including two very high profile literature festivals. Inevitably, as Charleston is an independent arts organisation, a major part of the role of Director was fundraising and planning a sustainable future. By the time I left I had planned and raised over £4.5m towards the cost of a major development project aimed at giving the organisation the facilities it desperately needed.

Head of Development, National Gallery (1994 – 2006)

I joined the National Gallery as Head of Development just after my 29th Birthday in 1994, after seven years at the Barbican Centre. In 1994 arts fundraising really was still in its infancy and, even within an organisation like the National Gallery, was viewed with a great deal of suspicion. I had responsibility not just for all the Gallery’s fundraising from exhibition sponsorship, corporate membership and the development of individual giving, but also for major acquisitions, gallery restoration and two significant building projects. I stayed as long as I did because I worked with two inspirational Directors, Neil MacGregor and Charles Saumarez Smith, and because my role there continued to develop and evolve in interesting ways. It was an incredibly exciting time to be at the Gallery, and my friends and colleagues from that period have continued to play a huge part in what I have done subsequently.

Head of Sponsorship, Barbican Centre (1989 – 1994)

When I left university I had imagined that I would be able to walk into a job as a curator or exhibition organiser at one of London’s galleries, but I found very quickly that several thousand other recent graduates had had the same thought. Undeterred I decided – as I had taught myself to touch type – that I would find out the names of the secretarial agencies used in the art world and would try to get on their books. So, having taken a typing speed test (on a manual golfball typewriter…), I was sent for an interview at the Barbican Centre to be the secretary to the newly appointed Head of Sponsorship, as a result of which I became the first ever male secretary at the Barbican Centre. Just under two years after I joined, the Head of Sponsorship retired and although it didn’t even occur to me to apply for her post, she suggested that I be invited to apply. I was successful and spent five years principally working on the fundraising for a series of high profile arts festivals that encompassed the concert hall, theatre and art gallery.

Colin McKenzie is Director of the House of Illustration.

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Photo of Colin McKenzie