Terry Grimley meets the Barber Institute's new director Dr Ann Sumner.
It's only two months since Dr Ann Sumner became the fifth director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, but her awareness of its small but outstanding collection goes back a lot further than that.
She first saw it as a student, and she has been a regular visitor ever since, during a career in museums which has taken in the National Portrait Gallery, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Holburne Museum in Bath and, most recently, the National Museum of Wales where she was head of fine art.
"I've long admired the Barber," she says. "There's a fantastic collection here and a fantastic exhibition programme, and I've regularly come over the years.
"When I was at the Holburne Museum I borrowed the Rev Sandford's account book for an exhibition, and the following year I borrowed The Harvest Wagon for an exhibition on Gainsborough in Bath."
It has always been her ambition, she says, to be the director of a "perfectly formed" art collection, so the opportunity to succeed Richard Verdi on his recent retirement was too good to miss.
She adds: "It's a huge honour to be the first female director of an organisation that was founded by a woman, and one of the great collections that was founded in the 20th century."
She was surprised to find, in her first few weeks in Birmingham, that awareness of the Barber is not necessarily as high in its immediate surroundings as it is throughout the world of art scholarship.
That has a lot to do with the fact that for much of its history the Barber did not see presenting itself to the general public as part of its role. This changed with Prof Verdi's arrival in 1990, but further profile-raising remains high on Dr Sumner's initial agenda.
"I think it's a challenge, but it's basically a soluble issue," she says. "But I must stress I think Richard did the most wonderful job of opening up the Barber and making it much better known than it had been previously."
Dr Sumner is working on plans which will take the Barber up to 2012 - the 80th anniversary of its foundation in 1932.
"I've only been in post for two months and I want to consult before putting them out in detail. I think it's terribly important when you're new that you don't rush in before people can explain why something may not be a good idea.
"What I have observed is that it's the Barber's 80th birthday in five years' time, and I think we need to be moving towards a major celebration. So we are aiming towards a very strong exhibition programme leading up to the 80th birthday.
"The anniversary coincides with the Olympics, and we might, for example, do an exhibition on tennis. Edgbaston is the home of lawn tennis, after all, and there are some beautiful Edwardian and Victorian paintings."
Other possible exhibitions in the next few years could include further "in-focus" treatments of paintings by Gwen John, Van Gogh and Manet. Dr Sumner would also like to do something around the above-mentioned note-book belonging to the Rev John Sandford, a key figure among British collectors in the early 19th century, which was given to the Barber by its second director, Ellis Waterhouse.
"We have exhibitions in the pipeline, and we're programming very carefully over the next five years. We're very keen to maintain research and high standards, but I'm also keen on having a balanced programme. I would like to do some focus groups, not only of people who support the Barber but also with those who don't know so much about it."
The next exhibition, coming up in the New Year, is a new departure. Behind Closed Doors is a survey of art from private collections in Birmingham, ranging from old masters to contemporary artists like Cornelia Parker.
"I'm glad there was still time for me to get involved with Behind Closed Doors. That's got to be a great opportunity, because people love seeing things that aren't normally on display. It's interesting to see who collects in Birmingham now."
Following on from her research into the Davies sisters of Newtown, progressive-minded private collectors who gave the National Museum of Wales most of its outstanding collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, Dr Sumner would like to carry out a similar project on the formative years of the Barber: "I certainly think we need to capture people's memories before they are lost to us for ever," she says.
The current exhibition Exceptional Beauty and Outstanding Merit reviews the 80-odd works added to the collection during Prof Verdi's directorship. Does Dr Sumner have ideas about areas in which she might want to collect?
"I think I'm in a different situation to previous directors, in that the core collection is now in place, with someone like Richard coming along and filling gaps. Everyone has done a fantastic job, but there are other areas where I think we can work.
"For instance, we have we have two miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, but we can't contextualise them and it would certainly be possible to buy in this area.
"Next year I'm co-curating an exhibition at the National Gallery on Sisley. I know we don't have a Sisley and I would like to buy one. His English and Welsh landscapes are not very well known and not all that expensive. I would also like to buy a Cezanne, but I'm realistic about that.
"Other gaps, as far as British portraits are concerned, include artists from the 17th century like Lely and Kneller, who show how we built up to Reynolds and Gainsborough. Those are areas I'm particularly interested in, but basically this is a beautifully formed collection which has this tremendous breadth.
"I think it's exciting: whenever people come here they say, 'Oh - you've got Impressionists, you've got Rubens!'. We also have this wonderful, wonderful coin collection. And of course Richard did so well with works on paper.
"I'm amazed at how much we lend - I think we have about nine works out at the moment, to really major exhibitions. The wonderful thing about the Barber is it aims so high, we can afford to be ambitious about what we buy in the future."
I wondered whether Dr Sumner might be the director to oversee a physical extension to the Barber (Robert Atkinson's original building was designed for future extension).
There has been some talk about this is recent years, but Dr Sumner is cautious, suggesting that a more efficient use of space within the existing building could be enough to meet medium-term needs.
Priorities include better education and IT facilities and, most important, a proper cafe - a necessity rather than a luxury in a 21st century art museum. This could eventually find a home in the basement.
"If you do come here regularly there are things you notice," says Dr Sumner. "I'm putting together a five-year plan to put to the trustees in the summer, so these are just my first impressions so far. It's fantastic to have five years building up to the anniversary year."
* Behind Closed Doors is at the Barber Institute from January 25 to April 27. The gallery is open Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm.