Featured in
Frieze London 2020

Zoé Whitley talks to Chrystal Genesis about the Frieze x Deutsche Bank Emerging Curators Fellowship

‘What I have to do is help empower the next generation’

BY Chrystal Genesis AND Zoé Whitley in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine | 29 SEP 20

Kuba Ryniewicz
Zoé Whitley. Photograph: Kuba Ryniewicz

Support the Frieze × Deutsche Bank Emerging Curators Fellowship by purchasing a limited-edition face mask designed and signed by Idris Khan.

Chrystal Genesis: Firstly, how did the idea to create a curatorial Fellowship with Frieze and Deutsche Bank emerge?

Zoé Whitley: Eva Langret is the new Artistic Director of Frieze London, and we’ve known each other for a long time. Over the years, as two black women in the arts, we’ve had a lot of conversations about what representation means, how we create more equitable pathways, and what it means to actually put into practice the things that you believe. As the pandemic caused so much to come to an absolute standstill, there was a really acute sense of how much we’re all connected as an art ecosystem. Eva and I were really thinking about a collective momentum. Everyone is saying they want to do something, so how do we really make something happen?

CG: And why did it make sense to do this now, during a global pandemic, when many arts organisations are struggling? 

ZW: I was struck by a very strong sense that it would be a long time before momentum would pick up again for some of the positive changes in terms of curatorial representation to take effect. Very sadly, the sector is contracting, roles are being frozen and people are losing their jobs. For me, it’s important that even while we acknowledge those hardships, we don’t allow that to be an excuse to not force some of the changes we need to see in the art world. That we don’t say, ‘well, now, is not a good time.’ Because if not now, when? If we are going to be grappling with fewer opportunities, we should make sure they are meaningful.

CG: So how is that going to work on a practical level?

ZW: The Frieze × Deutsche Bank Emerging Curators Fellowship, in partnership with Chisenhale Gallery, is the first of its kind in the sense that we’re creating a three-way partnership that will facilitate a full-time opportunity for a young person of colour to be able to work in the arts in a curatorial capacity for an 18-month period. That includes full salary, and provision of things that we know an individual will need to do their job properly — things like a laptop, but also a stipend for research, travel; a fund so that they’re able to purchase books and access conferences online, etc. It’s 18 months because sometimes it takes six months for someone to find their feet. Six months are the starting blocks, but after that there will still be a whole year to hit the ground running.

CG: Will they be working closely with you as well?

ZW: They’ll be working with the whole team. In an organisation as small as ours, there is actually quite a lot of nimbleness and interconnectedness. What’s special about this Fellowship is that it will provide not just theoretical knowledge but really practical and hands-on experience. Many people these days learn how to be a curator through an MA course. I feel like a young fogey now, but I may be the last generation that learnt to do my job on the job. So, there will be a hands-on ‘apprenticeship’ element: close observation working with the team, and a real proximity to artists, learning how to talk to them, how to think alongside them. What we specialise in at Chisenhale is working with artists at all stages of their commissions, from the inception of the idea to completion, and the works often go on to tour internationally or join major museum collections. There’s agency built into it as well, with an allowance for their own curatorial output. This isn’t going to be an internship where someone will just be handed the photocopying.

CG: Personally, what was your working introduction to the art world like?

ZW: Well this venture, in many ways, comes from my own experience and my own background. I wouldn’t be sitting here had it not been for a J. Paul Getty Multicultural Summer Internship, as they were then called. In the 1990s, it was possible for California residents to apply for paid internships in a range of museums and galleries in the Los Angeles area. Having paid work: that was really meaningful. I would not have been able to start my career in the way that was then standard, which was through unpaid internships.

CG: And it does just re-emphasise, sadly, how necessary it is to have this kind of programmes. 

ZW: I think that’s what’s helpful to understand. If you’ve had access to what you feel are a range of opportunities, it can be somehow easy to think that everyone else has those same opportunities, or to think that we’ve come such a long way that things like this are no longer needed. But I’m here to say that they’re absolutely needed. What we can do with them is to really forge ahead and be constantly reinventing the model.

CG: And though progress hasn’t been made, representation in the visual arts world is still notoriously poor: while there is some progress on gender, there is a huge race and class problem.

ZW: The artist Carrie Mae Weems, a phenomenal African American photographer, said in the New York Times a few years ago that she’d be out at private views and be the only Black person there still. I know that feeling. But I think institutional changes are happening incrementally. People are asking questions now about who’s on your board, and whether that is reflective of the city or the country that we live in. And those are questions that urgently need answers. In the urgency of this moment, a Fellowship like this can create pathways to ensure institutions will continue along certain trajectories in the future.

CG: So, this fellowship needs to be funded?

ZW: It does. We need £45,000. At least. We’re very judicious with our funds, we can make a lot happen with that.

CG: What are the different ways that people can support it?

ZW: Firstly buy a face mask designed for the Fellowship! Frieze and Deutsche Bank have worked with the very talented British artist, Idris Khan, to produce a protective mask, with its own case, which you can buy and 100% of the purchase price goes to fund the project. So you can be COVID-safe, stylish while you’re doing it, and also support this really excellent cause. It’s breathable and made sustainably. It takes something that is now a necessary part of our lives and makes it beautiful.

CG: And so if everyone chips in and buys the masks to raise the funds, what are your hopes for the person who receives the Fellowship? 

ZW: I hope that they will have some really positive, formative experiences in their curatorial work, just like I’ve had – which is why I’ve wanted to keep going, even when things have gotten hard. If through this we’re able to model the inclusive, equitable, dynamic and ideas-filled dimension that we know the art world can be at its best, then that’s ‘job done’.

CG: What are your hopes more broadly for the art world as we enter this ‘new normal’?

ZW: I honestly don’t think it’s a question for me to answer. What I have to do is help empower the next generation so that things are easier for them than they have been for me. What I see so much now is that a younger generation of curators aren’t asking about the reasons why we shouldn’t do something, but rather how we can make things happen. Not saying, ‘well, we’ve never done it like that before’, ‘we don’t have enough time’, or ‘normally we’d do it this way’. They’re saying, ‘well if that doesn’t work, we’ll find another way’. And I’m learning a lot from that.

Support the Fellowship by purchasing a face mask and case here

Support the Fellowship by purchasing a limited edition by John Akomfrah here

Zoé Whitley is director of the Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK, and the author of Solid!, a forthcoming monograph on Barkley L. Hendricks.