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Curating as caring: Zoé Whitley, Alumni Story

Zoé Whitley is Director of the Chisenhale Gallery, London, having previously worked as a curator for the V&A, Tate and Hayward Gallery. She curated the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019, is one of the judges for the Turner Prize 2021 and is a member of the recently appointed Mayor’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm

Whitley grew up in the USA, studying BA Art History in Swarthmore College, outside of Philadelphia, before coming to the UK in 2001 to study MA History of Design at the RCA and V&A

We spoke about her time at the RCA and its lasting impact on her approach to working in museums and galleries.

Since graduating from V&A/RCA History of Design you have had an impressive career as a curator. How did studying at the RCA set you up for this career path? 

The RCA’s History of Design course is such a unique partnership with the V&A. What’s most memorable is the behind-the-scenes access to what museum work really entails and how many skillful people contribute: the public-facing educators, the conservators, the librarians. 

I shelved books in the National Art Library (NAL) as a part-time job throughout my studies. Learning that shelving system, reading in the stacks when the NAL wasn’t busy, even seeing all the bound theses of previous HoD students motivated me to complete my research.

an installation shot of Cathy Wilkes exhibition for the British Pavilion in Venice
Installation view of Cathy Wilkes, on view at MoMA PS1 from October 22, 2017 through March 11, 2018, Cathy Wilkes
Mixed media
variable | © Image courtesy MoMA PS1 | Photographer: Pablo Enriquez
At the RCA you studied the representation of Black people in fashion magazines. What can researchers bring to conversations around race and representation, and why are these important conversations to have within an art and design context?

My MA thesis was actually about representations of blackness; the focus of the research very quickly became how often wigs, body paint, stockings and various styling strategies signalled an eye-catching otherness in the total absence of any actual Black people whatsoever! 

What began as an interest in Black fashion models such as Donyale Luna – the first to be featured on the cover of British Vogue in 1966, albeit with her hand entirely obscuring her face – turned into a useful exercise in questioning the very foundations of aspirational image-making and dissemination. 

It is through examining practices in the creative industries that we can interrogate what’s true and what has merely been accepted as truth.
Zoé Whitley
Until relatively recently, international fashion media operated on the basis that Black cover models meant lower magazine sales. That belief becomes self-fulfilling when models of colour are in turn only presented on the covers of the slow-selling months. It is through examining practices in the creative industries that we can interrogate what’s true and what has merely been accepted as truth. It’s the only way to dislodge structural inequality. 

Culture can’t purport to represent us all when so limited a range of voices have historically controlled what we see, consume and have access to. Audiences are also no longer passive recipients of what experts deem to be of value. So it’s as simple and as urgent as that: future cultural relevance hinges on making space for more and different perspectives.

framed photographs on a gallery wall
Installation photograph of "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983" at the de Young Museum
Photographer: Gary Sexton
Your PhD research, supervised by fellow RCA alumna Lubaina Himid, into Black artists’ experiences in art institutions informed the Tate exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. What was it like applying academic research to the practice of curating an exhibition?

I don’t think of myself as an academic. I’ve never been interested in theory for the sake of theory. It works for other people but that’s not what excites me. For me, it’s all about how an idea can be shared practically or tangibly; that might be a talk, a children’s book, an exhibition, or inviting brilliant minds to share their research in a catalogue. 

installation shot of Soul of A Nation exhibition
Installation photograph of "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983" at the de Young Museum
Photographer: Gary Sexton
You’ve spoken about the formative experience of working at the V&A and being a custodian of a national art collection. Why is this idea of ‘art for all’ important to you, and what more could be done to make art accessible? 

This is surely the place to quote William Morris: “...I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few... ” I think it’s important to make clear that access isn’t the same as appreciation or acclaim: there’s often a false correlation between making something accessible and expecting people to be grateful for it. 

From that assumption, it’s too easy to deride anyone who ‘doesn’t get it’. I think a key to genuine accessibility is openness to a range of reactions and responses, and operating based on a heightened awareness that our spaces may need to do more and different things to accommodate the needs and expectations of individuals. 

We have to reject any unspoken sense that the welcome we provide is contingent on compliant visitors not speaking up, not asking questions. Institutions have to prepare themselves to respond to the requirements of who they are addressing and also to ask themselves who they aren’t addressing and why not. 

People look at a colourful abstract painting
Installation photograph of "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983" at the de Young Museum
Photographer: Gary Sexton
What do you enjoy most about being a curator, or now the director of a gallery?

Talking to and learning from artists. My worldview is constantly enhanced by seeing things differently through their eyes.

Who do you think needs more recognition in the art world, what can be done to rebalance past biases in art or design history?

This is a question for the next generation of RCA graduates to answer. I’m ready to learn from them!


Interested in joining an MA programme committed to practice-based, public-facing history? Find out more about V&A/RCA History of Design.