Iwona Blazwick on the New Whitechapel

On Sunday, April 5, London’s Whitechapel Gallery reopened after a two-year, £13.5 million ($20 million) renovation that triples the museum’s space by expanding into an adjacent former library.

The newly refurbished museum boasts an ambitious exhibition schedule including four temporary shows a year in its main space, a yearlong installation in a second gallery, and several smaller rotating shows in auxiliary spaces. The big draw on opening day was the largest-ever U.K. retrospective of German artist Isa Genzken. A sculptor concerned with humanizing architecture, as evidenced by her Hospital (Ground Zero) (2008) project for the World Trade Center site, Genzken is an apt choice for the renovated museum, which has always aligned itself with its working-class neighborhood. As part of its community outreach, Whitechapel will offer a welcoming environment for those outside the traditional art-going public, with free entry, increased education programs for children and disadvantaged adults, and studio space and workshops for local artists.

Debuting alongside the Genzken show is The Nature of the Beast, a yearlong installation by Turner Prize nominee Goshka Macuga. If Genzken’s exhibition is the reopening’s most prominent draw, Macuga’s installation is the most poignant reminder of the gallery’s history. Originally founded in 1901 with the intention to bring art to the poor of east London, Whitechapel made a name for itself in 1939, when it hosted Picassos famous anti-war painting Guernica (1937) to raise awareness and funds for the anti-fascist cause during the Spanish Civil War. To mark the gallery’s reopening, the Polish artist has created an installation consisting of a tapestry replica of the painting (made in Paris's Dürrbach Atelier in 1955 in collaboration with Picasso), a loan from the United Nations building in New York; archive film and newspaper documentation of the work; a round “summit” table; a blue curtain; and Macuga's Cubist bust of Colin Powell. The former secretary of state’s presence is a nod to his infamous 2003 Weapons of Mass Destruction speech made in front of the tapestry, which he had covered with a blue curtain.  

ARTINFO caught up with the director of the gallery, Iwona Blazwick, to talk about art, politics, and funding streams.

Iwona, why did you choose Isa Genzken for the inaugural exhibition?

Genzken is part of a generation of European sculptors that I’m interested in, so it is partly me and my likes, but she also brings together so many contemporary issues that we are interested in. Plus, she’s 60 and has been a huge influence on both younger generations and her peers. Every artist I’ve spoken to has been really enthusiastic about the choice.

Whitechapel has always had a political history. Is this something that you want to bring out with Genzken’s work and the Macuga installation?

It’s inescapable. Guernica is symbolic of all the artists who believe art can be an urgent matter for society, that it isn’t just about decoration or aesthetics. This belief is also in the gallery’s history and is something we happily continue. Yet I hope it won’t be didactic. It is implicit, not explicit, both in the philosophy of the gallery and in the work of the artists we’ve chosen to show.

Whitechapel wasn’t planning to expand until the library building next door was unexpectedly put up for sale. Was it daunting to triple the space without having a previous plan to do so?

Are you kidding? Oh my God, of course. The first week I was here as director I had to sign the contract to buy [the new space] for £900,000, a sum we didn’t even have at the time. I thought I was going to be the Whitechapel director who bankrupts the place. It was terrifying. But everyone was behind us, so you must just boldly go.

There’s art everywhere in the building, from Liam Gillick’s design for the cinema and lecture auditorium chairs to Rodney Graham’s weathervane on top. Were you worried about having the money to fill it?

We haven’t done anything like double the staff. We have eight more people, so that’s not a massive growth in outgoing funds. We will still have four seasons in the rotating gallery space, the installed exhibition is on for a year, and there are just a small number of other projects. We’ve been very careful about not making ourselves vulnerable. Part of the £13.5 million figure quoted [as the cost of the new space] is a £2.5 million endowment which helps keeps us financially sustainable, along with our continued Arts Council funding and corporate and foundation supporters. Though of course we’ll have to weather the storm like everyone else.

Are you taking any particular measures?

I looked at the Obama election campaign, at how he raised money through millions of small pledges, and I remembered that when Picasso made Guernica he looked at bringing in a million penny donations for the anti-fascist forces. We are seeking to replicate this for ourselves. In the spirit of Joseph Beuys, and Fluxus, we will be selling multiple editions of artworks — one way we plan to bring in small amounts of money, but in large numbers.

Lastly, have you started to think of the two buildings as one?

It’s getting there. Today is the first time we’ve opened all the internal doors, and now I’m seeing it and I’m more than happy with it.