‘Can I please have the Korean buttermilk chicken and Asian slaw sandwich?’ Zoé Whitley asks the waiter before turning to me. ‘You’re going to order something incredibly healthy, aren’t you?’ Clearly, this would put a mark beside my name. Clearly, she doesn’t know me. I order a halloumi burger. Anyone up for salad-shaming is OK by me.
It’s late January and we are sitting in Spiritland, the ground-floor restaurant of London’s Royal Festival Hall. The vibe is bland, mid-century chic: the kind of place men in COS cardigans come to drink organic soda and tap away on MacBooks. It’s also a stone’s throw from Hayward Gallery, Whitley’s current place of work. But not for much longer. A week before we meet, she was revealed as the new director of Chisenhale Gallery.
Over lunch, Whitley tells me her backstory: ‘I was a geeky kid,’ she says of her childhood in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. ‘When my parents couldn’t afford to send me on a European trip organized by my school, they came up with the next best thing’ – a visit to the Getty Villa with her best friend. She loved it. (The friend was bitterly disappointed.) During freshers’ week at college, she expressed a desire to be a museum curator and, soon after, got a J. Paul Getty Multicultural Summer Internship – a programme providing paid placements in Los Angeles museums for black and minority-ethnic students – in the costume and textiles department at LACMA.
Whitley came to widespread public attention last year, when she curated Cathy Wilkes’s show for the British Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. Over the past 20 years, she’s also worked at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate where, as curator of international art, she co-organized the exhibition ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ (2017). The concerns of her practice – facilitating dialogue, addressing racial hierarchies in museums, public conversation – have been present from the start. For her first academic assignment on contemporary art, as a student at Swarthmore College, she spoke with a black security guard at the Philadelphia Museum of Art about his impressions of Anselm Kiefer’s painting Nigredo (1984). ‘Everything that ended up in my essay, which my art-history professor said was really excellent, came from what he was able to share with me.’
The mindset of the contemporary curator is a curious thing. At one end of the spectrum are those with ‘creator complex’, busily stamping their names on constellations of artists and dictating the discourses to which they belong. At the other end are the keepers of the faith, those who treat art as sacrosanct and dedicate themselves to spreading the word. Whitley is situated towards the latter pole. She has no desire to shoehorn artists into her curatorial agenda – ‘It’s not your vision that they’ve come to illustrate’ – and says the best compliment she ever received was from Lubaina Himid: ‘Now you’re thinking like an artist!’
Under the direction of Polly Staple, Whitley’s predecessor at Chisenhale, an institution of modest scale established an international reputation, commissioning artists including Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Lawrence Abu Hamdan to make new work at significant moments in their careers. Whitley pays tribute to Staple and praises the gallery for being ‘an important catalyst’, although she is far too diplomatic to say precisely who she intends to catalyse before she’s had a chance to sit down with the board. She does tell me she nearly didn’t apply for the job. ‘I’m not aw shucks-ing it,’ she says, but the fact she only took up her post at Hayward in April 2019 – while she was still working on the British Pavilion and the US tour of ‘Soul of a Nation’ – gave her pause for thought. Friends and colleagues persuaded her otherwise.
While we talk, Whitley methodically tears excess bread from the interior of her brioche bun and stacks it in a neat pile. By the time we finish, there appears to be more on her plate than there was to start with. An ability to maximize the resources she inherits will be vital in her new post. The omens are good.
First published in Issue 210