PRINT January 2009

International News

the Whitechapel Gallery’s expansion

WELL INTO THE 1980s, visitors to the East End of London would have been hard-pressed to imagine that this predominantly working-class area—hardly a magnet for cultural tourism in Thatcher’s Britain—would become a hub for contemporary art. If a few brave gallerists were already in the East End—such as Robin Klassnik of Matt’s Gallery, which opened in 1979, and Maureen Paley, who opened her first space in 1984—the indefatigable Whitechapel Gallery was the institution that made the district an unmissable if offbeat destination for cognoscenti in search of quality exhibitions of exciting new art. Yet that was pre-’90s London, in which there was no Tate Modern, no White Cube gallery, no Iniva, no Frieze Art Fair—the YBAs were practically still smoking in the bathrooms at Goldsmiths College—whereas nowadays no fewer than 180 galleries operate in the Whitechapel’s vicinity. Although many stretches heartily resist gentrification, the East End has changed—and its principal public contemporary art space has found itself having to keep up. Scheduled to open in April after a hiatus of more than two years, then, the revamped Whitechapel Gallery will increase its exhibition space by almost 80 percent, while attempting in several ways to raise its cultural, educational, and social profile.

The institution’s director, Iwona Blazwick, is spearheading the $20 million expansion, which combines the original 1901 building with the large former library next door. Joining together two Victorian buildings (a project led by Belgian architects Robbrecht en Daem, working with the London practice Witherford Watson Mann and with Rachel Whiteread as artistic adviser) is hardly a straightforward undertaking, especially given that not a single floor matches the corresponding story in the building next door. The necessity of forging connections between the various levels in fact offers an apt analogy for the need to reconcile the diverse, often contradictory demands placed upon the Whitechapel. The gallery has to straddle its international and local identities with particular care: While it is a major art institution in a major art city, it is also at the center of a young, ethnically diverse, and historically layered neighborhood. On the one hand, then, the venue must host significant, world-class exhibitions, such as the retrospective of German sculptor Isa Genzken that opens in April, and provide the amenities expected of a big museum—including a well-stocked bookshop (managed by bookselling veteran Franz Koenig); a series of artists’ multiples whose sale supports the gallery’s programs; a café and auditorium (both designed by artist Liam Gillick); and, not least, a top-notch restaurant, which will here be run by London’s upscale French bistro Le Vacherin. (The Whitechapel will also reflect the East End’s reputation as a site for the presentation of new art—in particular with the Bloomberg Commission, a large-scale, yearlong, site-specific installation of a single work: Blazwick envisions each commission as “a world, not a window onto a world.” The first of these will be a piece by London-based Polish artist Goshka Macuga.) On the other hand, the institution needs to attract local residents, whom it will engage directly with a show of work by neighborhood children and a project by Mexican artist Minerva Cuevas that introduces a new currency, to be given as change by vendors at a nearby market.

Acknowledging the venue’s heterogeneous audiences and expectations, Blazwick describes the Whitechapel as “the artists’ gallery for everyone.” Rather than collapsing under the pressure of so many demands (to say nothing of the desire to be environmentally sound, provide natural light in the galleries, and so forth), the expansion project responds with a courageous spirit of improvement on the known and experimentation with the unknown. Multiple concurrent shows will enhance the institution’s traditional exhibiting role: In addition to the exhibitions mentioned above, the opening season includes a survey of the East End origins of British modernism, and the inauguration of a dedicated archive-based gallery that will put on view documentation of the Whitechapel’s storied history. But the project will also open other possibilities for its exhibition spaces. Lacking a permanent collection of its own, the Whitechapel will host “homeless” collections on a temporary basis, beginning with four exhibitions of work from the substantial holdings of the British Council. But will such a policy function without controversy for private collections too, as is planned? There are other questions as well—for example: Will the commissions offer an appropriate amount of time and space to a single work, or will it grow stale before a year is up?

The Whitechapel’s hugely ambitious program has history on its side. But underlying the potential and the peril is a real unknown here: What makes for a viable multipurpose, multiaudience twenty-first-century public art space? It’s all to be tried out, reassessed, and revised if necessary. With money raised from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other organizations, the new Whitechapel aims to become “a destination, not just an exhibition venue, where there is always something free to see whenever you visit,” says Blazwick. Alongside its packed exhibition roster, an ongoing publishing program (in collaboration with MIT Press), the John Kobal New Work Award for film and photography, and specially commissioned artworks, including a weather vane by Rodney Graham, the institution will host a dizzying events and education schedule, including a series of public debates; peer portfolio critiques; classes for adults, children, drop-ins and dropouts; as well as an MA in Curating Contemporary Art (co-organized with London Metropolitan University) and an annual writer-in-residence program. Given the scale of its vision, the Whitechapel will need to maintain its sense of balance and experimentation to grow into the dreamed-of complex institution—which for now can only be imagined in a daredevil hard-hat tour of the gallery’s sprawling new premises.

Gilda Williams is an art and film critic based in London.