By Dr Zoe Whitley

29 April 2019 - 08:10

Zoe Whitley facing the camera
'There's a mystique around expertise; an idea that someone snaps their fingers and they're an expert. But knowledge starts somewhere, and we have to build and refresh it.' ©

James Gifford-Mead

Dr Zoe Whitley is Senior Curator, Hayward Gallery, London, and curator of Cathy Wilkes’ British Council commission at the British Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia 2019.

When did you become interested in art?

At my high school in Los Angeles, you could study art history alongside practical art classes. So, you could think about art as well as making it.

My parents took me to local museums, like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and as a teenager I taught art to younger children.

Why did you choose a career in art? 

You don't know what you can do until someone presents possibilities to you. People took the time to show me that it was possible to do what I wanted to do.

When I started university, I got a J. Paul Getty Multicultural Summer Internship. It was designed to get more people of colour into the arts in Los Angeles county.

I was placed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where I met a group of women who encouraged me to follow a career in art. As well as helping me to take that next step, they have become part of my network. I recently had a meal with the same women who encouraged me to get into this line of work.

The internship, when I was 19, was a turning point. I was in the costumes and textiles department. I wasn't just doing the jobs other people didn't want to do. They got me involved in planning and writing labels for exhibitions, including the Made in California (2000) exhibition.

How did you turn that early experience into a career as a curator? 

There's a mystique around expertise; an idea that someone snaps their fingers and they're an expert. But knowledge starts somewhere, and we have to build and refresh it.

On recommendation, I looked at master's programmes, hoping to be a fashion textiles curator. I applied for a master's programme at the Royal College of Art, studying history of design.

My first job was covering maternity leave, which led to a part-time role. Then, I became an assistant curator, working with prints and drawings. That was my introduction to working with living artists, and my job involved going to exhibitions in the evening. It was mind-blowing so early in my career to know that, if you have a question, you can call the artist and ask them.

That's what I love the most in my work today; asking an artist what they did, how and why they did it, and sharing that with an audience.

Another thing I like about my job, that probably pushes me to higher levels, is that the work is never done. Artists challenge you, and so there's much more to discover, and to share.

'Mentor' seems like a formal thing, but there are other women working in the arts who are very generous with their time. You can bounce ideas off colleagues, younger members of staff, and more experienced people.

It's okay not to have all of the answers. People are more willing to help you than not.

What is daily life like as a curator? 

An exhibition starts with an artist's idea. We nurture that to a point where it exists in the world. The end result can look easy, but it takes effort to advocate for the artist, put together a collaborative team, and listen to people.

A curator is a problem-solver and a sounding board. Sometimes my job is desk-based, and sometimes I'm travelling. I talk to artists and we think through how their work might be shown, and what problems might arise.

When you're curating in an international context, your day is not nine-to-five. Work can spill into evenings and weekends. I find it helpful to get writing done in the early mornings, when fewer people are contacting me.

I'm new in a role at Hayward Gallery, so I'm getting to know, in 30-minute increments, the people who I'll be working with.

My work at the Biennale Arte for the British Pavilion is similar to the work of freelance curators. You have to get to the finish line, which means you have to communicate with the artist, and make sure exhibition catalogue essays and press releases are prepared.

You also have to think about accessibility. What is in place for visually impaired visitors, and the people who will be invigilating the space? At the Biennale Arte, Fellows will be in the gallery to answer questions from the public. It's our job to equip them with as much information as possible, so that they can play their roles with confidence.

What should early-career curators expect to do in their first exhibition?

In a small gallery, you might be changing the light bulbs, sweeping the floor and working with an installation team who are probably also artists. You might put the schedule together, pour glasses of warm chardonnay and welcome people.

In a large institution, your role might be more specific. You might be selecting the work, and explaining to co-workers why you've chosen these works and not others. And those people, whose agreement you will need, might help you to communicate that vision effectively to different audiences, like schoolchildren or families.

What advice can you give to curators who are beginning their career? 

Communication is important. You need to give clear answers to the questions:

  • Why is this an exhibition?
  • Why is it happening?
  • Why is it happening now?
  • Why is it happening here?

It's not all about having your name on an exhibition. Simplify the way you communicate, and don't try to say too many things at once. Less is more.

Cathy Wilkes’ British Council commission for the British Pavilion is at the 58th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, 11 May - 24 November 2019

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