Educated at Belvedere College, James White worked in business for most of his professional life. During this time, indulging his interest and passion for art, he also became well-known as an art critic and lecturer. In 1961 he took up the post of Curator of the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, and in 1964 moved to the National Gallery where he held the Director post until 1980. His time as Director brought a great period of modernisation and development for the institution. White oversaw the building of the new wing (today known as the Beit Wing), and in 1966 he established the conservation department. Staff numbers increased with the appointment of an assistant director, librarian, education officer, conservator, and cataloguers.
Most importantly, this period saw huge growth in visitor numbers; by the end of the 1960s over 300,000 people were visiting the Gallery annually. This increased to half a million visitors less then 10 years later. White’s belief that ‘we should kill the museum atmosphere in Galleries’ and ‘make them living places’ inspired an improvement in public programming. There were regular exhibitions, lectures, tours, events, and concerts as the institution opened up to the Irish public.
White was praised for rejecting demands made by the IRA regarding the theft of the Beit paintings in 1974. Following the robbery of Russborough House, the IRA gang, led by Rose Dugdale, sent a ransom note offering to exchange the stolen paintings for IR£500,000. They also demanded the release of Dolours and Marian Price, two sisters convicted of IRA bombings, who were on hunger strike in Brixton Prison. All nineteen paintings were eventually recovered by the Gardaí, including Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid.
White made many purchases, and with the support of the Shaw Fund was able to add several significant works to the collection including Yverni's The Annunciation and McGuire's Portrait of Seamus Heaney.