BY Hettie Judah in Profiles | 21 APR 21

Iwona Blazwick on What’s Next for Whitechapel Gallery

As it's director celebrates two decades at the helm, can she continue to reinvent the 120-year-old institution?

BY Hettie Judah in Profiles | 21 APR 21

In her twenty years as Director of Whitechapel Gallery, Iwona Blazwick has distinguished the East London institution in many ways. Perhaps the most significant being the gender balance of its exhibition programming. Long before the push that followed the #MeToo movement, Blazwick’s Whitechapel led the field. An Art News study of institutions in Europe and the US between 2007–14 found Whitechapel’s programme split 40/60 between female and male artists. (For comparison, the Centre Pompidou was 16/84 and MoMA 20/80.) There is a history, too, of addressing overlooked figures such as Eileen Agar, the subject of Whitechapel’s headline exhibition when the gallery re-opens in May.  

In her commitment to showing art by women, Blazwick pays tribute to Sandy Nairne ‘a great mentor,’ and, for a while, director of exhibitions at London’s ICA. In 1980, just after Blazwick arrived at ICA as an assistant curator, Nairne commissioned three landmark feminist exhibitions: ‘Women’s Images of Men’ and ‘About Time’ (curated by Joyce Agee, Catherine Elwes, Jacqueline Morreau and Pat Whiteread), and ‘Issue’ (curated by Lucy Lippard). ‘That was my baptism of fire,’ says Blazwick, who credits those shows with her ‘awareness of what we’d been missing.’ 

‘The ICA was tremendously exciting to me in the 1980s,’ says Blazwick. ‘I think of it as my postgraduate education: It was a crucible of new ways of thinking.’ She was to return to the institution as director of exhibitions between 1986 and 1993. 

Guerrilla Girls: Is it even worse in Europe?, 2016. Courtesy: Whitechapel Gallery, London

It was as an independent curator for Antwerp 93 – the Belgian city’s stint as European Capital of Culture – that Blazwick experienced the radical evolution of the curatorial role in that era. Taking their cue from Gordon Matta-Clark’s Antwerp work Office Baroque (1977), Blazwick and her fellow organizers took their international exhibition out of the gallery and into the city, commissioning site-specific works ‘responding to the space, its history, communities and geography. My job changed: I became researcher, co-producer and fundraiser.’ 

Working with artists including Jimmie Durham, Mark Dion and Renée Green, the curators programmed art for sites including the zoo and historic Plantin-Moretus printing house. ‘I learnt a lot from the artists who participated in Antwerp 93: it was very different, engaging in public spaces with uninvited audiences.’ 

Blazwick spent the mid-1990s at Phaidon Press, launching the art publisher’s Themes & Movements anthologies and a long running series of artist monographs. The latter were ‘very influenced by Parkett,’ she admits, bringing together ‘three or four different critical voices to discuss the work of one artist.’ 

An ‘opportunity of a lifetime’ was in the offing. In 1997, together with Caro Howell, Sophie McKinlay and Frances Morris, Blazwick was appointed to the curatorial team for Tate Modern. ‘Everybody was so busy building the building and raising money that we were left to our own devices,’ she recalls. The team re-imagined a museum for the 21st century: ‘Where were the gaps and lacunae? How could we present the century in a way that broke with the march of the ‘isms’, which by the 1990s was over?’ 

They opted to arrange the collection thematically rather than chronologically: ‘We came up with a different model that weirdly looked back to Joshua Reynolds and the genres, and found that it kind of worked.’ Still life became ‘Still Life/Object/ Real Life,’ and history painting ‘History/Memory/Society.’ When the museum opened in 2000 ‘there were controversial juxtapositions and howls of outrage,’ Blazwick recalls. ‘I think it broke the mould: it gave curators freedom to author their displays.’ 

Goshka Macuga, The Nature of the Beast, 2009, installation view. Courtesy: Whitechapel Gallery, London

Blazwick’s experience producing site-specific art for Antwerp 93 also informed Tate Modern’s annual Turbine Hall commissions. She carried this interest into her role as Director of the Whitechapel in 2001, overseeing a GB£13.5 million expansion that provided a space for commissions. This launched in 2009 with Goshka Makuga’s homage to Picasso’s Guernica (1937), shown at the gallery 70 years earlier. The expansion also provided improved education facilities, and space for exhibitions drawn from an annual ‘guest’ collection, among them La Caixa and the V-A-C Foundation. 

This year Whitechapel celebrates its 120th anniversary. What next? As ever, Blazwick imagines the gallery as part of a global art ecosystem and cites the urgent need for the arts to diversify as a profession. This month the gallery launches its long-term Ways of Knowing programme exploring alternative systems of knowledge – indigenous, self-taught and the non-human – and ways of thinking about gender, race, inequality and the environment as interconnected issues. Exhibitions in the offing include a celebration of the artist’s studio as ‘a space of production, a public arena and site of resistance’ a celebration of the women of Abstract Expressionism, and a major survey of photography from the African continent.  

Working with the Gallery Climate Coalition, Whitechapel aims to halve the gallery’s carbon footprint by 2030. ‘I don’t want to stop being international,’ she says, admitting that the environment is ‘a huge issue’ for the artworld. ‘I think it’s important to be a global institution, but to find a more sustainable way of doing that.’ 

Main image: Iwona Blazwick, 219. Photograph: Christa Holka. Courtesy: Whitechapel Gallery, London

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.