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The London art world tastemakers - the women shaking it up

·9-min read
Women of the Art World, L-R Sarah McCrory, Zoe Whitley, Catherine Wood, Eva Langret (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)
Women of the Art World, L-R Sarah McCrory, Zoe Whitley, Catherine Wood, Eva Langret (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)

The Frieze art fairs open next week and the London art world’s batteries are almost fully recharged. Leading museums and galleries face new challenges in the wake of the pandemic and the necessary ruptures hastened by the Black Lives Matter movement, but the pool of talent responsible for championing new art, now and in the coming years, is remarkable. Whether they’re reforming our national institutions and ensuring organisations address the climate emergency, or challenging the cut-throat commercial gallery world, the six brilliant women profiled here are our epoch’s tastemakers. But perhaps more importantly, they’re the change-bringers, the disrupters, ensuring that London’s art world becomes more equitable, more sustainable and even more dynamic into the future.

Zoé Whitley, 41, director, Chisenhale Gallery

Zoe Whitley has her ‘dream job’ (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)
Zoe Whitley has her ‘dream job’ (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)

Having co-organised Soul of a Nation, the acclaimed 2017 Tate Modern show, and curated the British Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, Zoé Whitley seemed destined to head a groundbreaking London contemporary art space. She described directing the Chisenhale, near Bethnal Green as a dream job: for decades it’s been a bellwether for the direction of new art in London and that track record was crucial to her.

“We’ve got this ever-expanding community of artists,” she says. “It’s not about trying to better or best what came before, it’s about adding to it”. After Brexit, many worried about London’s art scene losing its international dynamism. “One of the first things that I promised myself, and the team, was that I wasn’t going to allow that to make us smaller-minded,” Whitley says. “Fundamental to our mission is finding a way for British artists to connect with an international audience, and then introducing international artists to a British audience.”

Her impact was postponed — she took the helm in March 2020 — but that “reciprocity” was instrumental in her first commissions, awarded to Black artists from different parts of the world. Next up is Rindon Johnson, an American based in Berlin, then it’s young Essex-born painter, Rachel Jones and then Nikita Gale, an Alaska-born sculptor based in LA. They’ll be given “the freedom to experiment with something totally different”, Whitley explains. “To let them sink their teeth into an idea and to figure out how to make that real — because that’s our work — often has fun and unexpected outcomes.”

Sarah McCrory, 43, director, Goldsmiths CCA

Sarah McCrory curates a ‘purposefully inconsistent’ programme (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)
Sarah McCrory curates a ‘purposefully inconsistent’ programme (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)

After a stint at the small but punch-packing Clapham non-profit space Studio Voltaire, Sarah McCrory hit many art world radars spectacularly, as curator of a brilliant, often anarchic Projects programme at Frieze between 2010 and 2012. She saw it as “alerting collectors to the ecosystem, the grassroots that exists before any artists make it to showing in an art fair. It was purposely to challenge it.”

She admits some commissions were “less palatable, if you’re a gallerist trying to talk to a collector about a sculpture while people are throwing tomatoes”. But for her, “the excitement is in the disruption”, and that’s continued through her spell at the Glasgow International Festival and now at Goldsmiths CCA, on the campus of the university. There, she’s curated a “purposefully inconsistent” programme, reintroducing figures like feminist artist Alexis Hunter, exploring international but not widely-known movements like the Chicago Imagists, and working with a huge range of contemporary artists from the ceramic sculptor Lindsey Mendick to photographer and installation artist Mohamed Bourouissa.

CCA’s January 2022 exhibition sums up her boldness: 50 artists ponder “what it means to make a monument” today. “It’s considering, after the Black Lives Matter protests, after a pandemic, after Brexit, with a climate crisis, how can we look at monuments? How do we rethink history? It’s another completely different way of making an exhibition.”

Lucia Pietroiusti, 36, curator of general ecology, Serpentine Galleries

Lucia Pietroiusti’s role is the first in a UK gallery to focus on the climate-emergency (Thaddaeus Salcher)
Lucia Pietroiusti’s role is the first in a UK gallery to focus on the climate-emergency (Thaddaeus Salcher)

At the last Venice Biennale of art, the Golden Lion-winning pavilion was an opera performed on a beach in which the arias lamented the climate emergency. Sun & Sea (Marina), created by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė, was curated by Lucia Pietroiusti. She had then only recently been appointed as the Serpentine’s curator of general ecology, after previously leading the public events programme. It was the very first climate-emergency focused curatorial role in any UK gallery.

The idea of was “a way of trying to figure out whether one could have a curatorially-led or initiated project that would try to shift an organisation’s sense of purpose”, Pietroiusti says, “so that it could dedicate itself quite foundationally both to its discipline, and to a wider notion of environmental justice and balance.”

There are myriad projects which reflect Pietroiusti’s impact: Back to Earth, initially programmed for the Serpentine’s 50th anniversary in 2020, but now a sprawling “multi-year commitment”, in which 65 artists have conceived art that is also an environmental “campaign or initiative or intervention”. Then there’s Sensing the Planet, a symposium on the intersections of race, art and ecology, in Dartington later this month. And Sun & Sea (Marina) finally reaches London, after wowing crowds across the world, next year.

“We shouldn’t think about only reducing the carbon footprint, or what they call sustainability, but something more like: ‘Can we leave a positive trace?’” Pietroiusti says. “It’s something that is referred to as ‘thriveability’.” Expect to see examples – like “some projects that benefit pollinators” – unfolding at the Serpentine soon.

Catherine Wood, 48, senior curator of international art (performance), Tate

Catherine Wood is held in high esteem by her peers (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)
Catherine Wood is held in high esteem by her peers (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)

Catherine Wood’s influence is summed up in the esteem in which she’s held by her peers. Sarah McCrory (see above) says Wood made Tate Modern “unmissable” in the many projects she has curated. “There was always something mindblowing and brilliant happening.” Wood began curating performance at Tate in 2002. And she had a lot to do. “There was no such thing as performance on the Tate [artworks] database for one thing,” she says.

She argued from the start that Tate should look to a new generation of artists from Brits like Monster (then Lali) Chetwynd and Mark Leckey to international artists like Tino Sehgal and Roman Ondak, who were “changing the model of performance work”. Working closely with them prompted a watershed in Tate’s approach to collecting and showing performance. “Learning from artists was the way to change things at Tate,” she says.

As well as being internationally acclaimed, Wood’s programmes have attempted to draw in Tate’s surrounding community but “it’s taken us 20 years to really understand what the Turbine Hall space is and what access is”, she says. This summer’s joyous project that she curated in the Turbine Hall, Mega Please Draw Freely by the Japanese-American artist Ei Arakawa, where visitors drew onto the Turbine Hall’s floor, was a landmark moment. “We didn’t know if people would want to come in again this summer [after lockdown]. But that simple thing of making a mark on the floor… it was really interesting to see who came in and how local and how diverse the audience was. It felt like a new era.”

Vanessa Carlos, 38, director, Carlos Ishikawa

Vanessa Carlos (Rafael Martinez)
Vanessa Carlos (Rafael Martinez)

Vanessa Carlos runs one of London’s leading commercial galleries but it feels like a non-profit space, exhibiting experimental art by a range of international artists, from the Thai multimedia artist Korakrit Arunanondchai to the Colombian-born Londoner Oscar Murillo.

São Paulo-born Carlos has an acute eye for young talent and found these artists early on. It’s a tribute to her that they stay with her, even when the big galleries come calling – Murillo shows with David Zwirner, but remains on Carlos’s roster. She admits that some shows are “really uncommercial” but it is also “funny and ironic” that artists she has worked with since their art school days are “some of the most commercially successful artists” of their generation.

Carlos was the founder in 2016 of Condo, in which galleries across the world effectively exchanged artists to show in each other’s spaces. “The art world is just a microcosm of the world at large,” she says. “And if you look at the way the world is going, and neo-liberalism, the idea of corporations and competition, the only way that you can stand up to that is to collaborate and collectivise.” She’s now part of an even bigger group, the International Galleries Alliance, with nascent plans for things like summits and new online sales platforms, or lobbying on subjects like arts education. Behind it all is her desire to reform the gallery model, “a way of fostering a different culture in our community, rather than one of competition and poaching. How can we actually work together?”

Eva Langret, 38, artistic director, Frieze London

Eva Langret aims to avoid ‘supporting the usual suspects’ (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)
Eva Langret aims to avoid ‘supporting the usual suspects’ (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)

Langret has spent her career “making sure that everything that I do isn’t just supporting the usual suspects”, she says. And in the Parisian native’s first real-life Frieze London fair, she’s expanding Frieze’s breadth and diversity: “I’m interested in fostering new voices,” she says.

Before Frieze, she did just that at the 198 gallery in Brixton, which champions Black artists, the Delfina Foundation, with Middle Eastern and North African artists and at Tiwani Contemporary, a gallery focusing on Africa and its diaspora. And while mega-galleries, having paid thousands for their Frieze booth, can exhibit all the usual suspects they want, she does have a say in the more fringe galleries that appear at the fair “and there’s a lot of new energy around that”.

She’s “really excited” about first time exhibitors, like Los Angeles’ Gavlak, which “focuses on queer voices, women artists, people of colour” and Parliament Gallery, a Parisian space founded only last year. Langret recognises that the main section of the fair “doesn’t necessarily represent what is going on in the art world as a whole” so supporting fresh artists also means showing those outside the megabucks realm. The Live programme is key, with performance commissions given to London-based artists without gallery representation — Rebecca Bellantoni, Ebun Sodipo and Ashley Holmes. “If it wasn’t for this programme, these are the kind of voices we wouldn’t have at the fair.”

Frieze London and Frieze Masters are at Regent’s Park October 13-17

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