Iwona Blazwick

Iwona Blazwick might be the most important curator in the world. Undoubtedly one of the sharpest minds of the cultural world, Iwona Blazwick has been director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London, since 2001, overseeing its successful expansion in 2009. She has curated many outstanding exhibitions including a major Thomas Ruff retrospective presented at the Whitechapel earlier this year.

Credited for discovering artists such as Anish Kapoor, Blazwick was instrumental in positioning Tate as one of the most successful institutions in the world thanks to the opening of the Turbine Hall. Prior to the Whitechapel Gallery, Blazwick was director of exhibitions and displays at Tate Modern. She was awarded an OBE in 2007 for services to art.

On the occasion of the newly-opened spectacular Elmgreen & Dragset exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery running until 13th January 2019, Iwona Blazwick talks about the mentorship of Sandy Nairne, her epiphany while visiting the Dia Art Foundation in NY, feminism and the importance of showing women artists today, and the catastrophe that is Brexit.

When did you know that you wanted to work with artists and artworks?

When I left university, I thought I was an artist. For my very first job, I was really lucky, I got a position with a gallery called Petersburg Press. They weren’t a gallery so much, they were a press who made limited edition prints and deluxe edition books with Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, James Rosenquist, Richard Hamilton, Howard Hodgkin and so on and so forth.

I was the receptionist and every night I would go home and make my own work. After a year I took a long hard look at it and realised it was 100% derivative. I was just emulating all these great artists. It was a great epiphany; that was when I knew I had to do something to do with art. Actually, I’d done a course which was English and Fine Art so it meant you were really thinking about language. I knew then I should do something else, write about art, produce it, present it, talk about it.

I applied for a job at the ICA as a lowly administrative assistant, and I worked my way into the exhibitions department where I had an amazing boss called Sandy Nairne. He went on to become director of the National Portrait Gallery – before that he was at Tate. He taught me everything I know today, he took me to this thing called the Venice Biennale, he took me to documenta. It was such an education; he trusted my instincts. We did a show together, even though I was his assistant. Lewis Biggs was included and the show was called Objects and Sculpture. It was the first show of works by Anthony Gormley, Richard Deacon, Bill Woodrow. We discovered this young Indian artist called Anish Kapoor, and others. Sandy gave me that opportunity and that was a great one.

The other thing is that my parents were architects and I think they really taught me about space, how you navigate space. When I was little, we used to drive to the ‘continent’ as it was called, to go and see ‘expos’ as they loved them. We went to the expo in Switzerland and looked at the pavilions. It was absolutely magical, I loved that. They took me to all the cathedrals in France including modernist cathedrals like Le Corbusier’s for example. Having that immersion in space where the experience was not only visual but also about volume, light, texture, passage through, entrance to the exit, all of those things were a great education to become a curator, as was being a failed artist. When I was at Tate, I had some very distinguished and brilliant colleagues who were trained art historians but they didn’t know how to install a work in the space, I felt. They almost handed it over to the technical team, but for me that is the moment where everything comes together, that decision of where you put things in space.

Do you find the Whitechapel space challenging?       

It’s a great space because it was designed as a gallery. Most, like Tate Modern to the Serpentine, they were all designed for something else, whereas the Whitechapel Gallery is purpose built. I like the fact it’s got very high ceilings, a real sense of light and volume. And there’s a passage you can take through it rather than having to go into a room and come out again. At the Whitechapel you go on a journey. It takes you across the ground floor, up and through, our most successful exhibitions have used that. They’ve taken the viewer on a series of episodes, immersive experiences that leads to the other.

What makes a successful exhibition then, and how do you measure it from a curatorial point of view?

A successful exhibition is, of course, only as good as the art. However, if it makes you forget where you are, if it immerses you, if it transports you, moves you, in the way that theatre, or a concert or being in a club do, these experiences will sweep you away. To me this is success. I think that’s fantastic.

Are you looking at what other museums do or are you trying not to?

All the time; and I learn a lot from my colleagues. We’re constantly being surprised by what is out there, and challenged. I think one of the most important influences in my life was the Dia Art Foundation in New York. Dia which means ‘through’ in Greek is interesting – it’s about a passage. When I went to New York for the first time, when I was a ‘baby curator’ in the 1980s, I walked along West Broadway, and I saw this great door ‘420 West Broadway’ with D.I.A on the door. I pushed it and behind was this white wall, and behind the white wall was ‘The Broken Kilometer’, this astonishing installation by Walter De Maria. It was an encounter with the sublime. In the middle of the most urban context you’d find this hidden landscape, which had a horizon made of equidistant brass rods. It was astonishing. Around the corner I then discovered the earth room going through the little staircase, opening the door, and finding this entire loft full of earth. That was mind blowing.

When I went to Tate, we invented those turbine hall projects, they were directly inspired by the Dia Foundation. At the Whitechapel, we were able to incorporate the former library in 2009 and we decided that, that should be a site-specific space where artists can present new commissions or a single work that has the kind of depth, complexity, or visual power to hold that space. I think that this is part of this wider engagement that artists have with site-specificity when they’re thinking not just about the architectonic qualities of the space but also perhaps its history and its local communities. So I think we, over the last 20 years maybe, have been part of that development.

Do you have the pressure to bring people in or not, given that the Whitechapel is a free exhibition space? Does that the fact it’s free impact your role as a curator?

A third of our funding comes from the government. We’re spending tax payers’ money. The Arts Council wants us to reach as many people as we can, and it’s part of a policy called audience development. I absolutely 100 % support that.  It’s our responsibility to reach as many people as we can but that doesn’t mean that we’re going to compromise the programme.

However, we know that for most people, photography is a very immediate way to encounter art because it’s recognisable, it’s mimetic, it’s something that everybody lives with, is surrounded by, so we know that an exhibition of photography is likely to draw bigger numbers than Fred Sandback using string in making an exquisite minimalist installation. We know that figurative and narrative art offer people an easy way in, and that’s inevitable.

We tend to anthropomorphise the world. Monochromes are particularly difficult – people feel hostility towards them. But luckily because we have a portfolio of spaces, we can balance things. We recently presented a very popular exhibition called Killed Negatives but that’s very unusual I think. If that entices people who have never been to a contemporary art exhibition, they might then confront something that requires a more nuanced, or more informed mode of interpretation.

What were your views about crowd-pleasing exhibitions such as the Michael Jackson show at the National Portrait Gallery for example?

I actually liked the Michael Jackson show. It is interesting how many serious artists have been drawn to him. I think there’s a serious subject at the heart of it actually.

Unfortunately, politicians tend to, because they are interested in votes, run the risk with some of my colleagues, particularly abroad, where there is maybe 80% funding, especially in continental Europe – Spain, Italy, France. There, my colleagues really have a hard time. If you get one populist politician or a very conservative politician, they will try and change the programming and push it towards the lowest common denominator.

Britain is very lucky because the Arts Council have a policy called the arms-length policy. It was instituted after the second world war after seeing the effects of fascism and communism – of totalitarianism on freedom of speech. It’s part of the ethos of the Art Council. They cannot dictate, but they have a view, and I think that’s correct. They will criticise galleries if for example they have no women artists, or if they’re not really reflecting society perhaps in their staff. It’s something we all struggle with, to be more diverse, and I think that’s happening slowly but surely. The Arts Council challenge us in these respects and they’re right to. Because we’re spending public money, we are accountable, but at the same time the real challenge is to persuade people that there’s something for them.

I have to pay tribute to the Tate because Tate Modern is so huge and such fun. I would challenge anyone to go in and not find something that appeals to them. Their presence has helped us. I came from Tate to the Whitechapel and at the time, we used to get about 100,000 visitors a year. Now, we get 360,000. That’s across all my colleagues – it’s not just us, it’s the Tate effect.

Also the Turner Prize had a big impact. I think the Fourth Plinth has been really influential in exciting ordinary people about contemporary art, Channel 4 and the BBC too. Broadcast media always try to show art in some way or another and until recently we only had four or five channels. It meant everybody watched the Turner Prize. It was much more common –  unless it was also in the Evening Standard. These shared reading habits or watching habits are all finished because we are now in a digital universe. Everybody could easily get stuck in their own echo chamber, you know, ‘I only love video games’, ‘I only love football’ etc. Now you can’t just cut across that and say ‘what about art?’. I think that’s going to be very challenging for us.

I saw the Lukas Zimmerman video upstairs and I thought it was very political. Do you want to be perceived as a political curator? Or is it something you try to avoid because, again there’s a need to please as many people as possible. It must be hard to have a strong voice as a curator these days.

I think politics is part of what we do. I’m a feminist for example, even showing a purely abstract female painter is political because we’ve been excluded for 40,000 years it sounds like. Even though the content of an exhibition may not be overtly didactic or about a particular issue, everything we do is political – like it or not, it’s inevitable. If we choose to include or exclude artists – it’s political. If we reflect other forms of identity or sexuality – it’s political. So I don’t think you can ever say it isn’t political. It’s inherent in having an institution, making choices, offering a platform of representation. It’s there in everything we do.

The London Open title of the summer exhibition, is it a reference to Sadiq Khan’s ‘London is Open’ campaign?

No, actually it precedes that! The origin of this exhibition lies in the East End Academy, which was founded in 1932. From the very beginning, the Whitechapel Gallery had that ethos of being as open as possible. The architecture is significant in that respect, because up until 1901 the model for museums and galleries – if you think of the British Museum, National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Academy for example – they’re all based on the Parthenon, with steps leading to the temple. The very first instructions our founder Canon Barnett gave to his architect Charles Harrison Townsend was ‘no steps’. He wanted direct unmediated access from the street to the gallery. As part of that ethos, in the 30s they decided to offer unknown artists the chance to apply for an open submission show, and that tradition continues today. It used to be the East End Academy, and then it became the Whitechapel Open, and then I decided that because artists are now in Peckham and everywhere – it used to make sense because the East End was where all the studios were, but now you’ve got Debtford, Peckham, Acton – we should just be ‘London’. So that’s where ‘London Open’ came from.

Who are you following these days, who are you impressed by, or any exhibitions you’ve seen which you loved?

I have found myself drawn to this rise in ceramics, to artists using more manual, tactile, materiality.

At the same time we’ve seen the huge surge in animation, moving image work. Over the last decade, this surge has been astonishing. There’s a working into tandem, as artists go more into digital, archiving, looking at the vast source of images and information that the internet offers up, and also the possibility of creating these virtual spaces. It has been countered by the desire for something which is much more tactile, immediate, physical craft orientated, and I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been really interesting seeing artists take a craft like ceramics and turn into sculpture. What’s also really interesting is watching how the interdisciplinary morphing between painting and performance.

In one of the projects here, Alexis Teplin has this almost architectonic screen animated by three performers who have a script and certain actions. In a way they have absorbed everything from Gertrude Stein to Marxism – it’s a collage. So to me, that was emblematic of how artists are looking at history, through the ruins and aspirations of modernism. Moving between media and bringing it all together in one space seems very much the spirit of our time.

Have you seen exhibitions where you thought “that’s a good idea, I should have done that?”

One thing that’s amazing is Unlimited in Basel, because the sheer scale of space and investment is impressive, fully immersive and very ambitious.

On the contrary, I went to a tiny artist space last night and watched a performance by the artist Hany Rati with these amazing Kimonos that were then animated by a Korean dancer. That was in High Holborn. We have to keep our eyes open everywhere in this city, and then of course around the world.

You were talking about films. I’m interested in the Jarman awards. Did you start it?

No, this was started by Film London. They are government-funded and they have a production body called Flamin. They started it ten years ago and in a way, they were trying to found a Turner prize but for moving-image work. Just as that was named after JMW Turner, this is named after Derek Jarman.

It was a way also of bringing all these different works being made that were given production grants as well. It was a way of bringing these works to a larger public. I joined the jury seven years ago. There are 200 nominators around the country, and we see 70 films. It’s a lot of work, and from that we’ll choose 6-10 shortlisted artists. Then there will be a winner that will be announced in November. The winner wins a £10,000 prize, and Channel 4, a co-sponsor, will get to make a 2-minute film. The 4-6 runners up also get to make a film for Random Acts. It’s been an amazing programme, and very distinct from what’s happening in Cinema. The pressures in Cinema at the moment are intolerable because of the degree of investment. It’s so conservative as a medium, it’s really depressing. The degree of investment in it means it needs box-office returns, the idea of being family-friendly etc. It’s very heavy on production and huge casting teams etc.

What is great about how artists have approached it is, it comes out of, on one hand, structuralist filmmaking, like Moholy-Nagy or the Surrealists. But it also absorbs the documentation of performance art that someone like Bruce Nauman pioneered in the 60s and 70s. There’s a confluence between those two things. As an artist can make a film with his or her phone, nothing else is required. They can also be the editor on the computer, and because there’s no box-office requirement, it’s a huge relief. It can be 2 minutes long or 24 hours long.

I also think this idea of appropriation and collage, images, text or sound, from the past and feeding them through the present is interesting, for example someone like James Richards, an amazing artist who composes new work with composers to create soundtrack, to create filters with sound and music in one space. In terms of a defining medium of the 21st century, it probably has to be moving image.

Do you think the future of curating will be around moving images rather than traditional media?

They will never go away; all of these things will be in the same time frame forever. But they all influence each other, 3D printing, all those kind of technologies.

We did a big show here called the Electronic Superhighway, and one thing I noticed was that there were many paintings in it but none of them had a vanishing point. There was no horizon. If you look at Albert Oehlen for example it was all one thing in front of another – no classical perspective. That was interesting. You see how painting has absorbed the digital space.

About Frieze this year, can you tell me about how it came about and your involvement in it, as you said “I am a feminist…”?

Last year Frieze launched this section with Alison Gingeras. She made a selection of women artists she felt had been excluded from the canon. It was called sex workers, and it was a very particular work which was looking at taboos, of women expressing sexuality etc. This year, they decided to look at second-wave feminism in the 1980s, although it then widened to women who were also excluded due to their ethnicity and geography. It was interesting because we all threw in so many different names, and there is such a vast pool of people out there.

For me it was great because when I started working in the 1980s, I went to see this show when I was fresh out of art school, called A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy of Arts. First thing I remember is that there wasn’t one female artist, or maybe there was only one, but it was a time when painting had made a huge comeback after the dominance of conceptual art, and it was the debut of artists like Anselm Kiefer, AR Penck, Jörg Immendorff, Gerhard Richter possibly, and Sigmar Polke.

What was interesting is that a lot of them were looking back to history painting, back to neoclassicism, it was not avant-garde, it was going backwards. It was retrieving history, and, in some ways, it was mind-blowing. But what was really striking was at that moment, when men were embracing the past, a whole group of women were doing the opposite, looking at the present and the future.

I went to New York and I discovered a strange series of portraits by someone called Cindy Sherman, and Jenny Holzer’s work. I saw her posters with truisms, which weren’t advertising or activism. They were political, philosophical, quite incendiary, and baffling.

I thought “this is odd”, and I recognised it. Barbara Kruger is another example, who appropriated images from advertising, and combining them with text. Those were my defining moments, and I’m not sure they’ve been able to reflect that in this section they’ve just done. At the same time there was Helen Chadwick; also many women of colour, who were doubly invisible. What was great about this was that we had a colleague from America, someone else from North Africa, it was wonderful, and everybody had a list, many of whom were fascinating and worth revisiting. Not all, but many of them had remained invisible.

Do you think that at that moment Polke, Kiefer were realising that women were excluded?

No. They had no idea. I mean I think Gerhard Richter was very supportive of his former partner Isa Genzken. Markus Lüpertz didn’t allow women into his atelier in Dusseldorf.

Some of them were actively excluding; others were just unthinkingly excluding. There were people of course like Bernd and Hilla Becher, who were simultaneously at the Dusseldorf Academy.

I think that this assertion of the ultra-heroic scale influenced many curators like Nicolas Serota. What I think is significant about this period in the 80s and the period leading up to it was that because women had been excluded from painting and sculpture, they had turned to other media. Moving image, performance, photography, and most of them survived by teaching, actually, at places like Goldsmiths and teaching subjects like psychoanalysis and thinkers like Freud and Foucault. Susan Hill for example was teaching anthropology, literary theory, structuralism, semiotics, and cultural theory.

At the time there was this strict disassociation between Cinema and High Art, whereas Barbara Kruger would write about – she was interested in mass media and mass forms of address like television, radio, which was slightly looked down on, in the art world. This was due to a fear of the tendency to slide towards populism. This was related to the whole Greenberg legacy. Someone like Holzer, who was using baseball caps, bottle-caps, stickers and posters was fascinating. I think that was the way they grasped mass and popular culture. It was part of an activism and it also bypassed the market. It’s interesting that that exclusion precipitated a new avant-garde.

Which is often the case. Do you think things are getting worse or better?

Better for sure.

How many female artists do you show per year?

I think it’s about 50/50. It goes up and down, but I think we have a pretty good track record, plus we do the Max Mara Art Prize for Women. Every two years, we have a jury of gatekeepers, a gallerist, a curator, a collector, an artist, and they bring five names to the table, artists they feel need more exposure but more importantly artists who could benefit from the residency in Italy. We have twenty-odd names and then we duke it out, and each one is a very passionate champion of their five. The principle of that is the gallerist will be introduced to an artist that she may not have known before. Even if those women don’t make it to the shortlist or win the prize, then it’s an introduction. It’s a way I hope of giving more time and energy, visibility and resources to women artists.

Staging Jackson Pollock: are you working on that now?

It’s my colleague Nayia Yiakoumaki, our archive curator’s show. It’s part of a wider movement in the understanding and teaching of art history, which is the history of exhibitions, because that’s how art met its public. It also coincides with the Duchampian idea that the work of art only starts creating meaning in relation to viewer. When we opened the gallery above us, it’s called the Archive Gallery, we decided to make a series of shows about exhibitions. We had our own archive to draw from, over a hundred years of extraordinary archive.

In 1958, Jackson Pollock had his first exhibition in Britain at the Whitechapel Gallery. Brian Robertson, the director, worked with this architect called Trevor Dannatt, and he was looking at the influence of Mies van der Rohe. Now, can you imagine the post-war Whitechapel Gallery? It was built in 1902, it had maroon walls and was very old-fashioned. They later decided to paint the walls in white, which they didn’t do at Tate and the Royal Academy of Arts; yet their walls were still maroon. This was the most progressive white cube space. Then they installed these things called breeze blocks, which were very cheap. They made walls of screens, like they had a black panel floating on a white wall, also reflecting the influence of Constructivism I think. The coup de grace was that Dannatt put a carpet across the floor of the gallery. The ceiling was made of this fabric that undulated. It was the maddest space and it was beautiful.

Pollock’s paintings were therefore not hung in a line, but each more-or-less had its own rule so that each painting became an environment. They even made it so there’s a painting with footlights as if it were a stage. In the exhibition, we have a Pollock we have to hoist from the Tate, we have Trevor Dannatt’s spirit and we have all the drawings and the photographs. In fact Thomas Ruff made a beautiful photograph of that installation that he colourised for that show.

In the 1950s we had a succession of amazing shows: the first Rothko show, the first Pollock, Gorky, Frankenthaler, Guston, all from America and all paid for by the CIA. It was all part of this new Cold War soft diplomacy. We were part of that. It was all expenses paid. We would never have been able to afford that otherwise. That’s what enabled us to have that transatlantic link.

It also shows how Brian Robertson the director, realised in a way that America had risen to ascendance. From 1905 – 1930 it was Paris, but after the second world war it was unquestionably New York. He saw that, and he wanted to reflect that. It was a culturally interesting moment as there were the geopolitics or American soft power alongside the shift of the centre of the art world. It was an important and rich moment in modern American art history.

Do you think that London is still the centre or have you looked at other cities?

I think it’s a much more global world which is very exciting. We know there are art scenes in Buenos Aires, Manilla, Belgrade. But I still feel that by the skin of our teeth, London is an astonishing centre because it’s so cosmopolitan, and because of the art schools. The art schools are so dynamic. I think that’s what gives it the energy. It brings in so many young people from around the world.

My biggest fear without question is Brexit. I think it’s a catastrophe and it has terrible implications for us. If you imagine, we are a museum without a collection, we rely on the free movement of works of art and on the free movement of artists. If we enter the worst kind of Brexit, we will have to get visas for every different nationality, with different restrictions on what can be moved. Italy has a totally different policy from Germany, so we’ll have to negotiate with every one of those countries.

It’s going to be a huge barrier for young people. 25% of my colleagues are from continental Europe, they have no idea what their status is going to be. It’s a terrible thing that’s happened and I fear growing isolationism and cultural impoverishment. We are able to make shows of non-western artists, for example our big William Kentridge exhibition was made with the Louisiana Museum in Denmark and the Museum of Modern Art in Salzburg. We were able to pool our resources to fund bringing that work from South Africa and from all over the world. We rely on those kind of collaborations to make exhibitions and publications. This could become impossible because we do not know what the tariffs and visas will be between us.

The politicians have no interest in this. At the moment they are playing to the lowest common denominator that will win them votes. They will say and do anything. They have no backbone in this.

It’s been a crisis, however, it came from somewhere, and we have neglected all those places outside the big metropolitan centres. It’s the same in Russia, in Turkey, in America. The people who have voted for Putin, Erdogan, Trump, and Orbán, they are people who feel left behind, disenfranchised, alienated and left with no sense of a future because they’re mostly in post-industrial communities where manufacturing has collapsed, mining is finished, and nobody has proposed an alternative. So, the kind of muck jobs in packing and Amazon warehouses will be gone because it will all be done by robots. And then what? So, I think there’s a sense of being abandoned and of wanting to blame someone, like foreigners and the EU.

Do you think that could have happened anywhere else but in the UK?

It’s happening everywhere, look at Italy, France, and across the developed world. I think it’s because we have failed to think of the post-industrial future which will give people dignity, an economy, community and culture. If you think about those old mining towns, they had brass bands, banners, there was a way of life. What is the way of life at the Amazon store? It’s nothing.

That has inspired us at the Whitechapel Gallery to start a whole series of talks called The Rural. It’s really about the post-industrial and if art and architecture and design can play a new role in shaping those communities. That’s our project. We’ve teamed up with University of Aberystwyth, the Istanbul Biennial and I’d like to make it a global discussion because everybody’s facing it. It’s both people who are in dying towns, the rust belt in America, the middle of France, to people who are in agricultural communities where everything is industrialised, where the food production is becoming monumentally scaled. In both these situations there’s a real danger whereas the cities are very healthy, because they’re full of opportunities.

Speaking of brass bands, did you go to Art Night this year?

Yes, it was very exciting, though it’s actually a part of London I never go to and don’t know at all.

I think it’s a wonderful initiative and it’s encouraged us to do our own, called Nocturnal Creatures, which is a tribute to their work. Ours was on the 21st of July. Coming through the Thames site, we had 30,000 people. It was insane and including our associate sites, 70,000. There’s clearly a hunger and an appetite for exploring art at night, and exploring off-site locations. I think that’s really wonderful. I’m a huge fan of those girls (Ksenia Zemtsova and Philippine Nguyen), they’re amazing. No one can resist them, they just walk into someone’s office and people give them money.

So, coming back to the pessimism of our conversation, I’m very pessimistic, though I will stay, because I find that the British culture is so different from anywhere else in the world.

In what way?

In everyday amazement, of habits, signs, colours, landscapes. Personally I am convinced that Brexit could only have happened here, because we are on an island, because the culture is so different from anywhere else. That’s my view, but I will stay and I will try to get my British passport because otherwise I don’t know what might happen to me. British friends of mine have told me “oh don’t do that, that’s the opposite of what you should be doing”, and I tell them that day-to-day I need to survive. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me in 20 years with pensions or health services, especially when you think about the Windrush scandal. All these things can come back to you in a way you don’t really expect.

I think you’re wise to do that. And also we need you. We will be in a much poorer place if people like you leave. Weirdly, we met with DCMS, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and when I said that 25% of my colleagues were from continental Europe, the person there told me “can’t you just hire local ones”? I replied “Daniel Herrmann, he’s German and he’s an expert on the work of Eduardo Paolozzi and mid-20th century art. My other colleague was recruited from an international shortlist. She’s from Portugal and is one of the leading figures in public debate and arts education. We interviewed people from the UK, but she was the best.” They don’t understand that there are special skills and experiences that come from being in another city.

Do you think that’s ignorance of the art world, or the art / creative sector world?

I think it’s the theory that all jobs are interchangeable, and a lack of understanding regarding how the culture sector works, that the levels of expertise that are required are very high. These people will speak three or four languages, which I cannot do. Their learning about history is different  because geographically they come from somewhere else. They’ve seen things we haven’t seen here. They don’t understand that. That isn’t interchangeable with someone who’s from Tower Hamlets.

Would you work in another country?

I would. What I do appreciate here though is the funding model which I described earlier. I really value the level of autonomy. I know that my colleagues in America really struggle, as they have a system where trustees demand their part in choosing the curators for their programmes. There is scope for conflicts of interest. If a curator is pitching an acquisition to you, you could very easily go and buy that artist as well, because you know that once it enters the museum its value will go up.

Whereas in Europe, you have the problem of politicians. We were working on a big Giulio Paolini show involving colleagues in Rome, and there was a new mayor who sacked everybody. Every museum director in Rome got the sack. Then he gave the jobs to his friends. Absolutely scandalous. I’m glad that here we have very good codes of governance and arts policy. There are all these things in place that enable myself and my colleagues to do what we do. I think sometimes we need to remind ourselves how lucky we are.

Absolutely. Last question, are there any other exhibitions you are working on?

Elmgreen & Dragset has opened and that’s really exciting. My next curatorial project is Michael Rakowitz in the summer, and then the year after ‘The Artist’s Studio’ which spans from Rodin to Theaster Gates.

Image: Iwona Blazwick, 2018. Courtesy: Whitechapel Gallery London; Photograph: © Mathew Greer.
Thanks to Josh Swerling and Sarah Crocker.