Artists' friend adds to her prestigious portfolio

Iwona Blazwick was born in 1955 in Blackheath in the south-east of the capital to architect parents who both painted. She changed the spelling of her family name from Blaszczyk, exhausted with mispronunciations in the Sixties and Seventies.

After reading English and fine art at Exeter University, she describes herself as "immersed" in the Modernist aesthetic – her thesis was on Henry Moore – until the revelation of discovering "ideas-based art" when she returned to London after university.

Blazwick took a job as a receptionist with a publisher of Pop Art books and prints and later became curator, then director of exhibitions at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). Her first exhibition in 1981 included work by Bill Woodrow and Antony Gormley. It was under her direction that the ICA hosted Damien Hirst's first public show in 1992.

In 1997, Blazwick became head of exhibitions at the Tate. She was integral to the conception of what would become Tate Modern, planning the installation of the collection and the blueprint exhibition programme. "I'm no stranger to hard hats," she says. Cue her next challenge in 2001 as she took on the directorship of east London's Whitechapel Gallery, spearheading its ambitious redevelopment.

When its doors open again on Sunday, Whitechapel will continue to showcase cutting-edge and celebrated artists, but on an extended canvas. In Blazwick's architectural revamp it has taken over the old Passmore Edwards Library next door, spreading into a network of stylish galleries, studios and reading rooms.

Blazwick says her new programme will focus on big mid-career surveys and exhibitions that explore a theme or examine new trends, with the mantra: "If you've seen it here today, it's going to be big tomorrow. Expansion allows the gallery to house free exhibitions all year round for the first time, "so there will always be something free to see," she says.

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