Zoe Whitley is a research curator at Tate Modern. She moved to London in 2001 from Washington D.C to study for an MA at the Royal College of Art. While studying she became a paperkeeper at the National Art Library. Since then she has worked as a curator for the V&A and Tate Britain. She is currently co-curating Tate Modern’s Summer Exhibition, Soul of a Nation.
How would you define the role of the curator?
The curator is an advocate, a negotiator. At our most rigorous hopefully we might be able to say that we are scholars, or contributing something to scholarship. Sometimes a curator – working with a living artist – is a collaborator.
Was it a deliberate choice to specialise in a field where many of the artists are still alive?
If I made any choices, that was probably a choice I made early on. I really appreciate being able to talk directly to the artists I work with, for the artist to be able to challenge me and push back on things. I think this exchange is really productive. It is a privilege to have a conversation with artists in their studio, and to gain a deeper understanding of how they made a work or what was going on when they made it. That said, Frans Hals is one of my favourite painters, always will be. I can still appreciate the long range of traditional western art history.
What is it like being an expert in your field?
I never wanted to think I was ‘expert’ in something. I think it is important to be informed, to travel and learn but to never wear one’s expertise as a badge of honour, as a kind of shield. It should be a constant learning process.
Do you enjoy being the spectator?
Yes and I find it fascinating to stand in front of a painting with someone else and see how they interpret it. One of my favourite things to do is to stand in front of artworks with my daughter. When I take her to museums I let her lead me around – I don’t want her thinking that it’s just another busman’s holiday with mummy. When she was very little we stood in front of Chris Ofili’s painting No Woman, No Cry. I asked her what she felt about it. She said it was ‘happy and sad - happy because of all the glitter but the lady is crying so it must be sad.’ We ended up having a really poignant conversation about Doreen and Stephen Lawrence, right there in front of the painting. I think it is wonderful that works can engender that.
Did you go to museums as a child?
My mother often took me to the Children’s Museum in Washington D.C. One of the exhibits was of a Mexican village square and the museum staff taught us to sing a song in Spanish, which we all sang at the top of our lungs. We were then given a pestle and mortar and told to grind chocolate. We made it into hot chocolate singing ‘bate bate chocolate’. I think it was because of experiences like this that I never had what certain museum educators refer to as ‘threshold fear’. From that early access and from living in cities where museums were free to enter
it was always something that I felt I could be a part of and enjoy myself in. Anything that paints art and theatre and culture as disposable and only for the few is incredibly unfair. It saddens me that people will self censor – think that the museum is not the ‘right’ place for them. Everyone should have a right to it and feel welcome.
Did you study art at school?
I went to a pretty special high school that had an astonishing art and history programme. If you said ‘I would like to know more about this’ then that would anchor the day and the other lessons would fit around the studio art and history classes. We would be reading Anne Frank while learning about the Degenerate Art Show. Instead of writing art history essays we would paint in the style of that artist. I remember drawing a portrait of my mother in the style of Charles White to appreciate his use of light. It was a way to make art and history come alive and it helped us to understand that art doesn’t have to be optional, but that art is essential.
It seems like an interesting time to be at Tate Modern, particularly with regard to international art. Would you agree?
Yes, definitely. There are galleries at Tate Modern where you can see the world in one room. You can see Norman Lewis and Jackson Pollock and Ernest Mancoba. All of a sudden, to have an African American artist in a context with South Africa’s pre-eminent modernist creates this discursive space – one in which the story of abstraction can be shown to be bigger than we have previously known it to be. It is brilliant that this dialogue is happening.
My favourite quote about art and art history comes from the Guerrilla Girls, from the one who goes under the pseudonym Frida Kahlo. She said, ‘unless all the voices of our culture are in the history of art, it’s not really a history of art – it’s a history of power.’ At Tate Modern we are all committed to making the museum truly international and I think that as long our work goes towards making sure that we are really respectful of all art and all artists, then that’s the best thing we can do.
What is most exciting about your role?
Sometimes I think that being a curator of international art is like being at a really loud party – in a room where there is so much noise that you feel a little overwhelmed. But now and again you overhear something, something that makes you want to know more. And while all this noise is going on you are having this small, quiet moment of discovery. It is so exciting. I love it when these moments happen.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, runs from 12th July – 22nd October 2017. Image courtesy of Andrew Dunkley, Tate Photography.
Zoe Whitley, Research Curator, supported by Guaranty Trust Bank plc was interviewed by Emily Mears.
Read other articles in the Curator's Eye series interviews here.