Building Bridges: Gilda Williams on the Whitechapel Gallery's Expansion

By Williams, Gilda | Artforum International, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Building Bridges: Gilda Williams on the Whitechapel Gallery's Expansion


Williams, Gilda, Artforum International


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 Whitcchapel'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 move 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 tow 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 Koening); a series of artists' multiples whose sale supports the gallery's programs; a cafe 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.

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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. …

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