Women in the Arts: Iwona Blazwick

‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’

For this series celebrating women in the arts, the Director of Whitechapel Gallery, London, discusses being a curator in the 1980s and the experiences that have shaped her understanding of gender in the workplace 

As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women?

When I was a baby curator in the 1980s I entered a bright new era of feminist awareness ushered in by figures like my then boss, Sandy Nairne, director of exhibitions at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), and the ICA’s public programmes organizer, Lisa Appignanesi. In 1980, Sandy presented a trilogy of exhibitions featuring work by women artists – ‘Issue’, curated by Lucy Lippard, ‘About Time’ and ‘Women’s Image of Men’, both curated by Joyce Agee, Catherine Elwes, Jacqueline Morreau and Pat Whiteread. I had been educated at a convent school and my mother was a practising architect, so I was blissfully ignorant of sexism. Those shows were consciousness raising – it dawned on to me to ask why there had been no women artists included in my art history studies? Why were they absent from commercial galleries, museum collections, exhibitions programmes? At that moment, I also understood that exclusion is the mother of invention – women were pioneering video, performance, photography and installation. Lisa organized events that created the intellectual framework for this new avant garde. She put together conferences on issues of postmodernism, identity, cultural theory, desire. She invited speakers like Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Annette Michelson and Laura Mulvey – it was mind blowing. 

Other shining lights for me were artists such as Judith Barry, Katharina Fritsch, Rose Garrard, Jenny Holzer, Mary Kelly, Barbara Kruger, Connie Parker, Martha Rosler, Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel and Nancy Spero. And then of course there was the full frontal assault of the Guerrilla Girls. Curatorial colleagues began to have their voices heard, including Carolyn Christov Bakargiev with whom I maintain an ever-inspiring dialogue. Later, exhibitions such as Cathy de Zeiger’s ‘Inside the Visible’ shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1996, Catherine David’s documenta X of 1997 and, of course, ‘WACK!’ curated at LA MOCA by Connie Butler in 2007 all expanded our horizons. 

I think we should also pay tribute to some great gallerists like Maureen Paley, Monika Sprüth and Janelle Reiring and Helene Winer of Metro Pictures who all represented young women artists in the 1980s. Monika also published the magazine Eau de Cologne, which provided an incredible platform for women across the profession. 

portrait_iwona_blazwick_portraits-1.jpg

Iwona Blazwick, 2018. Courtesy: Whitechapel Gallery London; Photograph: © Mathew Greer 

Iwona Blazwick, 2018. Courtesy: Whitechapel Gallery London; Photograph: © Mathew Greer 

What, if any, were the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as a woman?

Professional life for us facilitators – curators, producers, gallerists, publishers, editors – has been easier than for artists. Until the mid-20th century, the very notion of creativity was designated as masculine, so female artists have had to overcome millennia of being dismissed, neglected or silenced. What is remarkable is their tenacity and invention. However there will always be push back, the return of the repressed. Why have curators like Anna Coliva, Ann Goldstein and Cathy de Zegher been hounded by the press and the authorities? 

What specific experiences have you had that shaped your understanding of gender in the workplace, the media and the arts?

I was very lucky to run an artist’s space called the AIR Gallery in the mid 1980s where we pretty much had autonomy. There were just three of us and we did everything so there was no chance of a hierarchy. And the ICA, where I worked until the 1990s, was like being part of a visionary graduate programme where exhibitions, talks and publications came together to generate a post-patriarchal sensibility. Rather than the ossified and hermetic institutional structure that typified so many museums and galleries in the 20th century, I believe in a porous structure where organizations expose their staff and their publics to guest artists, thinkers, activists, poets who offer new perspectives and radical propositions. 

What has changed today?

Those artists for whom identity is not their subject have become liberated from the burden of representation. I am also proud our Max Mara Award for Women Artists has enabled women with young kids to undertake travel, research and new commissions. I think visual art along with literature are currently the most progressive cultural forms. This year’s BAFTAs didn’t recognise a single female director. In 2016, the BBC’s Proms featured 8 women out of 124 composers. Clare Foy, playing the lead role in the Neflix drama The Crown, was paid less than Matt Smith, who played her consort. The struggle continues. 

I hope that the presence of female artists in art biennales, international exchange programmes and digital platforms will inspire women in regions where religious and social orthodoxy demand their invisibility and their silence to assert their freedom. 

What are your thoughts about #Metoo and other initiatives to call attention to sexual harassment?

At last there is some immediate and communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo. 

Iwona Blazwick has been Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, London since 2001. Recent curatorial projects include ‘Terrapolis’ in Athens (2015), ‘Adventures of the Black Square’ (2015), ‘Thomas Ruff Photographs 1979-2017’ (2017), and ‘Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World’ (2018) at the Whitechapel Gallery. Blazwick is series editor of Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Documents of Contemporary Art.

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