Ivona Blaswick: The business of wealth curation

The new director of the Whitechapel art gallery aims to reach out to the local financial community as well as to the ethnic and artistic ones.
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The slight woman at the door of a house in north London's Finsbury Park explains that she is just finishing feeding her one-year-old daughter some porridge. Can this really be Ivona Blaswick, the new director of the Whitechapel art gallery, previously head of exhibitions at Tate Modern, the woman a former colleague described as "formidable, cerebral and highly intellectual"? Was this a former director of exhibitions at the ICA and editor of a groundbreaking series on contemporary art at Phaidon, someone with a reputation as a "trend hound", not so much cutting-edge as the one who sharpens the knives?

As the last spoonfuls of porridge go down, Blaswick declares with almost childish excitement how great it will be to run her own show for the first time. In the garden, Bella plays at her feet as she talks about her vision for the Whitechapel. The thing I find unnerving is how, in her mid-forties, she has managed to raise such a sweet, placid child while doing one of the most challenging jobs in London.

Her own childhood was steeped in Modernism. Her parents, Polish architects who came to England after the war, would bundle Ivona (it rhymes with Donna) and her brother into the car and take them on pilgrimages to Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp, or trips to various Expos. "They were a bit like theme parks," she recalls, "with pavilions, fantastical places where you felt as kids that you were in a different time or space." Closer to home, she remembers "a fantastic show of kinetic art at the Hayward ­ the idea that art could move was pretty exciting ­ that it was energetic, dynamic". Henry Moore's sculptures also made a big impression.

She realises in retrospect that all this stimulated not only a fascination with art and architecture, but with exhibitions. "It also taught me," she explains "that art moved in the 20th century from being a flat, two- dimensional illusion to being a whole world in itself." Although she studied English and Fine Art at Exeter University, she soon realised that she would make a very bad artist herself and that her mission was to help celebrate the work of others.

How will she do this in Whitechapel High Street? Founded 100 years ago to bring art to the people of the East End, by the 1950s and 60s, the gallery was introducing such stellar talents as Mondrian, Pollock, Rauschenberg and Rothko to London. In the 1980s, her future Tate boss, Nicholas Serota, kept the gallery on the global map. Under the outgoing director, Catherine Lampert, successes have included a Lucien Freud retrospective and a mid-career show for Gary Hume.

But there have been turkeys. "I have already visited the show three times," wrote a leading critic of Temporary Accommodation in January. "I just can't get enough of it. I keep going back to make sure that it was only a dream after all, and because I am a masochist."

Blaswick can't reveal her plans until they have been approved by the trustees, and her first "own" show will not appear until next year. But there are clues in exhibitions she has admired recently herself. "A knock-out contemporary show was Gillian Wearing at the Serpentine." The sign of a successful show, she believes, is when you come out having experienced an exhibition rather than a series of individual works.

Ah yes, some critics will snort, the sort of exhibitions that are more about what is going on inside the curators' heads than the artists'. Blaswick may be able to take a lot of credit for the success of Tate Modern, but she can also take some of the flak for its controversial thematic displays, with their rejection of conventional chronology in favour of "interesting" juxtapositions.

She dismisses the accusation with her throaty guffaw. "Curators have always been highly selective," she says. She points out, for example, that as a largely male-dominated profession until recently, they have been responsible for leaving women artists almost entirely out of the canon.

But her vision is not all cutting-edge contemporary. The Whitechapel will still put on shows by established famous artists, albeit probably not in a totally straightforward retrospective manner. A Blaswick benchmark is: "Can you show a very well-known figure and look at them in a new light that is revelatory and not just about the consolidation of a career?"

"It is also important for us to step back from some of the young British artists and review where they are as individuals," she adds. "So many have been wrapped up in the Sensation hype thing. But we've got to see it in an international context. We've become so immersed in the art that was exploding here in the Nineties that we stopped looking at continental Europe and the States, Los Angeles in particular." Not Blaswick, however. A stint as a freelance curator in 1993 took her to Belgium, Denmark and Japan. Her dazzling international contacts cannot have been lost on the trustees who appointed her.

How will the people of the East End handle all this? Being revelatory and helping people to look at contemporary art is difficult. Presentation is crucial for a wider audience. And here it could hardly be wider. "The Whitechapel has an incredible cluster of communities," she enthuses, "from the Bangladeshi community to the City ­ some of the richest financiers in the world." (You can practically see the £-signs flashing ­ alongside funding from Tower Hamlets, London Arts, and private bodies, she has to raise £700,000 for individual shows).

To reach them she will build on the gallery's pioneering work in taking artists out of the gallery and into the real world. The ethnic communities, she says, will be asked to advise and help the gallery make decisions. "Artists understand what it's like to be an outsider, and at the Whitechapel they have developed an extraordinary empathy with kids in exclusion units, for example. We will continue to tap into how artists can bridge those gaps."

She also sees a role for the gallery as the hub of the artistic community that has mushroomed in the East End. "Hundreds of artists live around the Whitechapel, and I'd love it to become a place where they can come and talk about their work, a platform for debates about art, funding, politics, the media." She also hopes that she can work with the new contemporary commercial galleries that are springing up in the area, circulating visitors between them. She has her eye on the space next door, a public library that is about to move. Such expansion would allow the Whitechapel to offer far more than its three rooms, cramped café and bookshop.

Century City, the recent mega-show at Tate Modern that looked at nine cities across the globe during key moments of artistic development, was overseen by her ­ and resulted in a fair amount of Blaswick-bashing for being overreaching and incoherent. Perhaps there is a danger that her ambition to reach such a diverse audience in so many ways at the Whitechapel will lead into the same trap.

There are even mischievous suggestions that she has retreated to the East End licking the wounds inflicted by Century City's critics. Would she like to return one day, following in Serota's footsteps? "You can never quite predict where your life is going to take you," she replies. I'd take that as a yes.