Chairman of Scotland's national galleries inspired by his grandfather

By PHIL MILLER

Chairman of Scotland's national galleries inspired by his grandfather

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AS a boy in Toryglen, Benny Higgins' imagination was fired by a youthful visit to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and a grandfather who encouraged an interest in the arts.

Now Mr Higgins, one of the nation’s top bankers, has a job he said he has aspired to for many years: chairman of the National Galleries of Scotland.

The Chief Executive of Tesco Bank, who will start a four year term as unpaid chairman in July, underlined that his vision for the NGS work is on a national scale.

He revealed he is particularly intrigued by the possibility of exhibiting works from the national collections at the Kelvin Hall development in Glasgow.

The banker, born in 1960, was a talented footballer as a young man – he described himself as a "determined" centre-half when he was captain of a Celtic youth team which starred Charlie Nicholas – but after gaining a 1st in Mathematics from Glasgow University, he wrought a successful career in banking.

Alex Salmond, the former First Minister, once said: "Nobody knows more about the Scottish banking market than Benny does."

Now Mr Higgins, who will succeed Ben Thomson in the role of chair, says he hopes the reach of the National Galleries (NGS), which is based in four galleries in Edinburgh, to be “inclusive” and expand their work across the country and to all social classes.

On free entry to the national collections of the galleries, he said: "Anyone in favour of inclusion is in favour of wide access."

Mr Higgins said he is particularly excited by the opportunity to work with Glasgow, which could see NGS treasures displayed on a formal basis for the first time in the city.

"The National Galleries are not just for part of Scotland, they are not just for part of society either: they should be for everyone," he said.

"Education is very important to me and I am interested in working in an inclusive way."

Mr Higgins said he warmly remembers a visit to Kelvingrove when he had was a pupil at St Brigid's Primary School, Toryglen, and it helped sow a love for galleries, arts and culture - and particularly poetry.

He said: "My maternal grandfather was also very interested in the arts, which wasn't that common at the time, and that really meant I have been interested in art and music and poetry in particular throughout my life - and in my mind, painting is poetry without words."

Mr Higgins said that previous nationwide shows by the NGS, such as the Generation series of contemporary art shows, and the ongoing Artist Rooms project, were laudable and added: "There's an aspiration to work with all the different parts of Scotland, and there is an opportunity to work with Glasgow.

"Bridget McConnell [chief executive of Glasgow Life] has been doing a great job with that and really that [Kelvin Hall] is a huge opportunity."

Mr Higgins is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scotland, a member of the Scottish Government Financial Services Advisory Board (FiSAB) and a member of the Financial Capability Board.

He is also a Non-Executive Director of the Buccleuch Estates, a Trustee of the Edinburgh International Culture Summit and a Prince’s Trust Ambassador.

The culture secretary, Fiona Hyslop, said: "Having served as a member of the NGS Board for three years now, Benny Higgins has been a real asset to the organisation, bringing in a wealth of experience and business acumen.

"Building on the legacy of the current Chair Ben Thomson, under whose leadership NGS has flourished as an organisation of international reputation, I am confident that he will pursue the Board’s good work and ensure that the NGS will continue to inspire a wider national and international audience through its innovative programme of exhibitions and activities."

Mr Higgins began his career at Standard Life in 1983 where he joined as an actuarial student and became a member of the Standard Life Group Executive in 1996.

In 1997, he moved to the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) to become Chief Executive of Retail Banking during which time he led the integration of NatWest Retail Banking, one of the largest mergers ever undertaken in UK banking.

He became Chief Executive Officer of the Retail Business of HBOS plc. in 2006, before joining Tesco Bank as Chief Executive in 2008.

Mr Higgins currently does not hold any other public appointments.