PRINT March 2001


the Whitechapel's new director

CALLING ALL SOAP ADDICTS! Forget The West Wing and tune into some real drama: the UK curatorial scene's exits and entrances, which have recently offered more than usual fodder for gossip. Subplots first. After two years in situ, Christoph Grunenberg vacates the Tate's collections division to become director of Tate Liverpool. Globe-trotting Grunenberg (who's held posts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the Kunsthalle Basel, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston) impressed selectors with his international savvy and is expected to strengthen the Tate's European and US ties. David Thorp, after eight years at the South London Gallery, leaves to become curator of contemporary projects at the Henry Moore Foundation, where he'll replace the late Robert Hopper and oversee artist-led initiatives across the UK. And Andrew Nairne, lead player at the acclaimed Dundee Contemporary Arts since its opening in 1999, takes over as director of Oxford's Museum of Modern Art where he will oversee a major refurbishment of its premises.

But as 2000 came to a close, the real end-of-the-season cliff-hanger hinged on the rumor that Iwona Blazwick, head of exhibitions and displays at Tate Modern, planned to fly the Bankside nest for a more precarious perch at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. In early January, all was revealed—Blazwick would indeed be taking over Catherine Lampert's long-held post as Whitechapel director. Tongues wagged. Why had Blazwick chosen the directorship of the financially embattled Whitechapel over second-in-command status at Tate Modern?

Blazwick will be inheriting an institution purpose-built in 1901 by Anglican priest and social reformer Canon Barnett and his wife, Henrietta Barnett, to benefit the local community of Tower Hamlets. In this culturally and ethnically mixed urban area, one of the UK's poorest, defining and serving “community interests” are tricky tasks. The easy part of Blazwick's job will be furthering the gallery's lively if sometimes fractious partnership with East London's artists. Fostering the Whitechapel's relationship with the “lay” population, however, has always been more difficult, but just as important. In this matter, the eyes not only of the Barnetts' shades but of public funding organizations will be upon her: Government policy now favors statistical surveys of museums' and galleries' relevance for low earners and ethnic minorities as the acid test for deciding who gets civic pounds. Quizzed on the issue, Tate Modern director Lars Nittve agrees: At the Whitechapel, fundraising will be Blazwick's big challenge.

Her own list of motives gives assorted conspiracy theories a fair soaking; this wasn't a strategic move to enhance her CV or escape the Tate environment. “I always wanted to work at the Whitechapel,” she confides. “When the post came up, I knew it was now or never.” The art school-trained Blazwick stresses her liking for hands-on involvement in exhibition planning and installation and notes that the Whitechapel is small enough for its director to stay closely connected with artists and curatorial agendas. The Whitechapel has a tradition of presenting lesser-shown but nonetheless canonical artists, and Blazwick cites its Eva Hesse (1979), Joseph Cornell (1981), and Frida Kahlo (1982) exhibitions as particular inspirations for those she'd like to initiate.

Further plans include developing the gallery's role as an “information point” for and about local artists. To this end, Blazwick is contemplating transforming the neighboring Whitechapel Public Library into an open-access, Beaubourg-style art-research center (an ambitious scheme originally proposed by Lampert in the mid-'90s). She also aims to expand the gallery's global perspective, building on the recent Tate Modern show “Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis,” which, she says, “has reinforced my awareness of African, Indian, and Latin American art's underexposure. Here, I'd like to dig deeper via both monographic shows and displays exploring other modernisms outside the Western canon.” As one would expect of the coauthor of Tate Modern's much-discussed “thematic” displays, she looks forward to plotting shows “with arguments,” drawing on revisionist cultural histories and new scholarship.

Blazwick's radical stance toward traditional art-historical and curatorial approaches may have provoked decidedly mixed reactions from Bankside-watchers—“Century City” in particular has taken a critical battering—but as any soap fan knows, dynasties rise and fall, and Blazwick's move could pay off professionally in the long term. Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota archly points out that not one but two directors have moved straight from the Whitechapel to the Tate's metaphorical Oval Office—Charles Aitken, the gallery's first head, and Serota himself, director from 1976 to 1988. “Iwona's work at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts, her international freelance curatorship, her commissioning for Phaidon, and her Tate Modern activities make her incredibly well qualified to direct the Whitechapel. We're sorry to lose her,” he says. Further, he agrees it's “fully possible” there could be a Tate niche for Blazwick again ere long.

And what of those vacated posts: at Dundee, the South London Gallery (plum jobs for rising stars with big ideas), and Tate Modern? Stay tuned, as they say, for the next thrilling installment.

Rachel Withers is a London-based art critic and a frequent contributor to Artforum.