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Iwona Blazwick, directror of the Whitechapel Gallery.


ARCHIVE FEATURE  In this final look at the emerging dominance of women in the gallery network, Sue Hubbard meets three highly experienced apparatchiks with the power to influence how contemporary art is understood today.


The painters Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were deeply involved in the formation of the Royal Academy in 1768. Yet when Johann Zoffany painted The Academicians they were nowhere to be seen. It was only male artists. The art world has historically been a male dominated place. But something has changed. Not only are women artists everywhere doing their stuff but women gallery directors are now running the show. Penelope Curtis presiding over the much talked about re-vamp of Tate Britain, Liz Gilmore at the new Jerwood Space in Hastings, and Victoria Pomery accepting the challenge of bringing art, via the Turner Contemporary, to Margate. STATE caught up with the directors of three important London spaces – Jenni Lomax of Camden Arts Centre, Julia Peyton-Jones of the Serpentine and Iwona Blazwik of the Whitechapel – to discuss this development.


Jenni Lomax has been the director of Camden Arts Centre since 1990. She ‘never set out to be a director’, having studied Fine Art at Maidstone before heading up the Community Education and Public Programmes at the Whitechapel Art Gallery throughout the 1980s. Education is at the core of her philosophy.

‘There were few female role models when I was young,’ she says.  ‘Joanna Drew who worked for the Arts Council and was director of the Hayward Gallery from 1987 until 1992 was a massive influence. But I like to feel that being a woman doesn’t influence what I do. I think that my background in making art colours the sort of work I want to show. I’m not an art historian, so I discovered art history from a contemporary perspective at the Whitechapel. I find concepts and ideas more interesting than art historical perspectives. I start with something in the present. The shows we put on at Camden have a pattern woven through them between old and new, young and dead artists.  It’s important there’s a connection to the world in some way; that the work has something to say beyond the subject of art. We don’t have a target audience.

‘This is a community gallery and open to anyone and because of the studios it’s always been a place of making as well as showing. I’m concerned to help artists realise their ideas. They don’t have to be commercial. We don’t have the same pressures as the Tate. I like to think of us as the PhD of the art world. We can show mid-career artists. Those who’ve not shown in London or we can re-introduce artists who’ve been neglected. When I started there were very few galleries in London. It was all rather enclosed. The Whitechapel was pioneering in the 80s. Over the last 20 to 30 years, things have opened up. Become more European. There are much bigger audiences now. People are less intimidated.’

Can art make a difference? Can it be a life-changing experience? ‘Well I hate art that has to be coupled with something else – such as “art and science” – to make it palatable. Art should be about art. Not all artists are good people but, at their best, they help us see things from a different perspective.’

But when newness and shock have become the orthodoxy, doesn’t it become harder to be original? ‘Yes it’s harder to shock. But we can shock against prevailing taste and fashion. There are still possibilities for shifting people’s expectations. There are young artists and small galleries who make work between the cracks of commercial spaces. I’d like Camden not to be just a showcase but a place for thinking about and making work. We still have a ceramics studio here and everyone wants a go!’


Visiting Julia Peyton-Jones, the co-director of the Serpentine, the name of Joanna Drew comes up again. ‘She was a great influence, a marvellous leader, sensitive and sympathetic. I worked with her when I was a curator at the Hayward. Men are traditionally hunter gatherers. But we now live in a multi-tasking world and women are good at that.’

Like Jenni Lomax, Julia Peyton-Jones studied painting. She attended the Royal College of Art and worked as a practising artist in London and a lecturer in Fine Art at Edinburgh College of Art, moving to the Hayward Gallery in 1988 as curator of exhibitions. In 1991, she became director of the Serpentine, responsible for exhibitions, education and public programmes, as well as for the annual architecture commission, the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, which she conceived. Recently she oversaw the renovation of the former munitions depot on West Carriage drive, with architect Zaha Hadid’s Bedouin tent addition, which has become the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery. It was under the patronage of Diana, Princess of Wales, that the gallery received a £4 million renovation in 1998. Does being a woman have an influence on her directorship?

‘Well, I don’t know what it’s like to be a man! But I see myself as a shopkeeper. I like the place to look as good as it can. The Serpentine is the size of a large house. Exhibitions need to communicate and I’m interested in an audience for whom art my not be the first interest. This is a broader, more open world than the one I entered. Though outside the privileged west there’s still a lot of female inequality. The arguments aren’t over. Life is still very difficult for some women. But we are a public institution and we need to engage the public.

‘I’m proud of the fact that the gallery has free admission. Only 18% of our funding is from the government, so we need to raise £6 million every year. We live in a celebrity culture and money is a double edged sword.  But I’ve always been comfortable with the relationship between public and private and believe that the positives outweigh the negatives. Certainly for some people the only thing they know about us is the Serpentine Summer Party and its celebrity guests. When I started, art was tribal. A tiny world of friends and family. There might be 20 people at a private view.  Art is a choice in a busy world. I’m concerned with how going to see an exhibition competes in terms of time with other things. Our role is to show artists who are part of an international debate and not usually shown in London and the UK. We are the 60th best attended gallery in the world.’

So what does she consider to be the role of contemporary art? ‘To reflect back the world in which we live against the cacophony of daily life. I’m attracted by the artist’s wonder at the ordinary. An artist such as Gabriel Orozco puts me in touch with what is all too easily forgotten. The challenge for the artist is how to keep things fresh in a commercial world and maintain a unique voice. It’s hard to remain untouched by the system. I think an artist like Phyllida Barlow manages that. But truly great artists are rare and the art world is fickle.’


From leafy Kensington Gardens to the gritty streets of Whitechapel, with its very different demography. Founded in 1901 to ‘bring great art to the people of the East End of London’, the Whitechapel Art Gallery occupies a distinctive arts and crafts building designed by Charles Harrison Townsend. The first exhibition included the Pre-Raphaelites, Constable, Hogarth and Rubens and attracted 206,000 local people. But, by the 1960s and ‘70s, it was being displaced by newer venues such as the Hayward Gallery. Then, in the 1980s, it enjoyed a new lease of life under Nicholas Serota and then Catherine Lampert. In 2001, Iwona Blazwick became director. One of her first responsibilities was to oversee a £13.5 million expansion of the building.

Iwona Blazwick studied English and Fine Art at Exeter University. From 1984 to 1986 she was director of AIR Gallery and then Director of Exhibitions at the ICA, before becoming an independent curator in Europe and Japan, and a commissioning editor for Contemporary Art at Phaidon Press. From 1997 to 2001, she was head of Exhibitions and Displays at Tate Modern. What does she think of this burgeoning of female gallery directors?

‘Well women, historically, weren’t represented in collections or museum programmes. Women painters were seen as second class. These exclusions make us aware of other exclusions. When I was a baby curator, the London art world wasn’t international. I feel feminism is one of the last avant-gardes. It became a consciousness raising exercise to confront all sorts of exclusions. Women’s work still doesn’t command the same prices as men’s. At one time women’s shows would draw comments. Now they don’t. Institutions aren’t static monoliths. Feminism was the virus that infiltrated institutions allowing them to change, enrich and evolve.

‘At the Whitechapel we have a very fruitful relationship with the private sector. The Max Mara Art Prize for Women, which is run in collaboration with us, celebrates the aesthetic and intellectual contribution women artists bring to the contemporary art scene in the UK. The winning artist is given a six month residency in Italy and the chance to show her work. And we’re involved with the Louis Vuitton Young Arts Project that embodies the brand’s creative spirit and its tradition of arts patronage.’

She also mentions Theaster Gates. Born in 1973 in Chicago, this African- American installation artist is committed to the revitalisation of poor neighbourhoods through combining urban planning and art practices.

‘This is an alternative strategy,’ she suggests, ‘to corporate art. A different way of doing things. I also believe galleries have a responsibility not to overexpose artists or show them too early. Our role at the Whitechapel is to navigate space in a crowded cultural terrain. We’re not the Tate or the Hayward. We try and keep a finger on the zeitgeist and show work that has some philosophical and intellectual dimension that repays analysis, work that is historic and geographic in scope. Our audience is our peers and aficionados but we’re also a public gallery and there’s been a broadening of audiences.

‘British culture has changed over the last 20 years. There’s been a move away from British iconoclasm, the sceptical and the fear of pleasure, along with an embedded hatred of modernism. Tate Modern, the Fourth Plinth and the Turner Prize have helped us all. We’re a betting nation. We all like to bet on the winner of the Turner Prize.’

Where does she think new influences will come from?  ‘I think the old is the new now. This generation is fascinated with the past. The repressed of communist Europe, the silenced of China, the history of South America.It’s a rich terrain. New economies are looking back at archives. Where there were distortions, where artists were excluded, they are now being rediscovered. It’s an interesting time.’


Sue Hubbard is a freelance art critic, award
winning poet and novelist.

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