Zoé Whitley has the kind of CV that can easily intimidate: she has a Masters from the Royal College of Art, she has been a curator at the V&A and at the Tate. This month, it was announced she would be leaving her role as Senior Curator at the Hayward Gallery to become the Director of the Chisenhale Gallery, a pioneering non-profit in East London. Whitley was the curator of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year, and her PhD was supervised by the Turner-Prize winning Lubaina Himid. She’s also graced the pages of British Vogue – dressed by her friend Duro Olowu – something she said at the time marked a deeply personal moment – and particularly meaningful given that her MA research focus at the RCA was black representation in fashion magazines.
When I met Zoé, I was equally intimidated by her long list of achievements. It was at the preview of her work as the co-curator of 2017 Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition at Tate Modern – that then toured to the US (where Jay-Z was among the attendees). Yet the woman I met was as approachable and engaged as she was impressive, embodying her message of inclusivity as much in her demeanour as in her academic work. If there is one common thread behind success stories, though, it seems to be that there are always others there alongside you, lifting you up as you do so for the next – and this is something Zoé herself has constantly emphasised.
I’d also heard stories of her packing off to West Africa with her infant daughter in tow on a research trip – yet another impressive thing about the American-born curator is the way she’s done all this, at 40, and balanced motherhood with it. I wanted to know how she has done it so far, and who has been there in the way.
What are your first and earliest memories of art?
All of my earliest memories of art are entwined with my grandparents’ house. There’s a narrow, landscape-format oil painting of large pieces of fruit that they commissioned from a local artist when they first moved into their home. It’s got a high saturation colour palette, very 1960s, and I love it! It hangs in their dining room to this day. For sentimental reasons, it’s probably my all-time favourite painting. Beyond this, my grandmother was a fashion designer, and she would often have me “help” by creating small arts and crafts projects for me so that I could be making things alongside her pattern-cutting or sewing. My mother studied art, and there were often canvases of hers in our basement.
When you started out in the art world, how soon did you decide what you wanted to focus on in your research?
Starting out, I was just learning all I could from my senior colleagues and peers. I don’t think I’d figured anything out beyond asking as many questions as I could, going to see shows as someone’s +1 and realising that it was possible to work with living artists, which was a total revelation to me. That realisation changed everything and started me on a course towards the work I’d later do, but I didn’t set out with a specific or pre-honed focus. I think it’s important when starting out in any field to remain open to a range of possibilities and outcomes. I still think of myself as a generalist; so many different artists and approaches inspire me every day.
You moved to the UK from the US in the early 2000s; what differences did you notice in the way art is exhibited and accessed here, if any?
What immediately struck me was the fact that the UK national museums offer free admission to access their permanent collections. Having learned how to be a curator at the V&A – where I began my career, that dual sense of being a public servant with responsibility for artworks that everyone can access and that those works belong to the nation was instilled in me from Day One. I spent my early childhood in Washington, DC and had the same experience visiting the Smithsonian Museums free of charge. Art for all has always been something very real to me, not just an ideal.
Soul of a Nation was really part of a revolutionary shift in the place and perception of contemporary African American artists in art history. How significant have the recent years been and did you imagine the show would have the impact that it did?
When Mark Godfrey and I penned the introduction to Soul of a Nation in 2017, we didn’t yet know the impact it would have on young Londoners or the reach it continues to achieve across its US tour. But we did know then that the exhibition had the potential to spread artistic approaches that others could see themselves in, be excited by, and, in turn, elaborated upon. We cited Kamoinge and Just Above Midtown as but two examples for future-focused shows we hoped to see in the world. Since that time, AfriCobra has shown at Venice, Frank Bowling at Tate Britain, Barbara Jones Hogu and Dawoud Bey in Chicago, Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine, Betye Saar at LACMA and MoMA, Jack Whitten at the Met Breuer and Hamburger Banhof, Mel Edwards in Brazil and many exciting solos still to come with Lorraine O’Grady at Brooklyn in 2021 and JAM the focus of a major 2022 exhibition at MoMA, and more! It’s important to say that these artists have been working their whole lives tirelessly, and while, sadly, some are only getting their due posthumously, it was previous generations of artist-scholars and curators — Samella Lewis, David Driskell, E. Barry Gaither, and more recently Kellie Jones among them — who laid the groundwork for the present moment. What feels perhaps like a new discovery is always built on the hard graft of those, too often unsung, who came before.
You work very closely and consistently with artists; how have the artists you know personally shaped you? Is the personal relationship you share an issue ever when it comes to being critical about work (something I personally confront in my own work, and if I’m honest, struggle with!)
Great question! I definitely know what you’re talking about. I refer to it as critical proximity. You could say that art historians have the benefit of critical distance by not knowing the artist personally in his or her lifetime. Contemporary art curators who work with living artists have the benefit of critical proximity. Knowing an artist and their work well certainly means that you have a particular view. What’s helpful is to have an informed opinion but to read and listen to others, aware that yours isn’t the only point of view when the proverbial art goggles get too blurry.
How and when were you first approached to curate the British Pavilion, and how did you feel?
It might seem unceremonious, but I first learned about the open call for the British Pavilion’s first external curator via email, forwarded to the entire Curatorial department by Tate Modern’s Director of Exhibitions. I read the person spec and knew it was a job I’d give my all to. I applied for it like a second job. My relatively short time as Curator, Contemporary British Art at Tate Britain certainly helped, and I learned so much from Ann Gallagher, Director of British Collections emerita at Tate. I was totally elated when I found out I had been selected!
How do you manage your career with motherhood – especially as you had your daughter in the same years your career was really taking off? And after you had your daughter, did you experience any kind of difficulty in returning to work? Did it alter your approach at all?
My husband is the reason I can do anything approximating management of motherhood and career. I can name-check women far more accomplished than I (US Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes to mind) who have also said that their partners made all the difference in what sacrifices they were able to make at home in the interest of their work. My husband is a writer, and he works from home, by choice. For most of my career, he’s been the lead earner and for the past few years, has been the lead parent besides. I was still at the V&A when I had my daughter. I was so lucky to have a very generous maternity leave and my own job to return to thereafter. I had a full year off with my baby and had what I can only describe as postnatal euphoria. (It hasn’t quite worn off, a decade later!) I seriously considered not returning to work and becoming a stay-at-home parent. Her little face was my biggest difficulty: I had no desire to go back to work whatsoever. At the time, my husband worked as an editor for a major newspaper. A close friend of mine knew me well enough to say honestly that she thought I’d need to keep pursuing goals outside of the home, in the long term. Hopefully, I’ve gained some perspective that work isn’t the Be-All, End-All. I try very hard to leave work at work. Though I often fail at this.
What are some of the challenges you face in being genuinely inclusive in your work with institutions?
I think truthfully that institutions are undergoing a period of rapid change, and willingly so. Traditionally, institutional change has been slow; the cliché is that those within institutions are reluctant to do things differently. But I’ve seen firsthand that with a little persuasion and a lot of passion, it’s not always as hard as it may seem to bring people along with you, or even to follow someone else’s lead. When the shared goal is ensuring institutional relevance and widening cultural excellence, I’ve found so many eager allies, and I’ve learned so much from my colleagues about best practice.
What’s the main thing you’d like to see changed in the art world this year?
I’m already seeing signs of it: more women of colour in positions of leadership in our sector. Eva Langret is the Artistic Director of Frieze. Sepake Angiama is Iniva’s new Director. Melanie Keen is helming the Wellcome. More of this in 2020…