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Iwona Blazwick

Historically, Whitechapel Gallery was very socially oriented. What is the strategy today?

It's free of charge and has a very intensive educational program. It was founded in 1901 and its mission was to bring great art to the people. One of the most important features of the gallery is that it has never patronized its audience. Even if one couldn't read or write — the art chosen was the very best. The founders never agreed to give people something easy, legible, or halfway, and this made the history of the gallery really remarkable. It shows the great masters of tomorrow that you might find in MoMA or Tate, today — that's the claim and at the same time a challenge. Whitechapel also has a lot of educational programs. For example, we help artists to look about after graduation and provide the next step for them. Or, we give people an opportunity to listen to serious intellectual talks about ideas by invited academics, who can share outside of the university a lecture or a concept that we feel is important.

In 1991, you staged  the first public show of Damien Hirst. How would you explain the Hirst phenomenon?

First of all, he is a very British artist. He draws on taxonomy, 19th century pursuits, and he is also very gothic. He uses cigarettes or pharmaceuticals in a way that people can relate to; he combines very austere, hygienic cases with things concerning drug-taking and the body. Hirst is a figurative artist who described the body by what it injects, by what it takes — and this is a very complex and sophisticated approach. He is also very interested, as Andy Warhol was, in publicity, in how it communicates to a mass audience. When he was a student, he would look at advertisements rather than art history, just to understand how they worked. He is definitely symptomatic of the late 20th-, early 21st centuries in a way I would say Jeff Koons, or pop-artists, were.

Did he have any particular meaning for the British art scene?

Yes, because he galvanized the art community in the early 1990's, which was very atomized. Practically no market existed then and artists didn't work together — they were separated and competed with each other. And also, there was just a very small number of galleries, both private and public, to show contemporary art. Whereas his method, as a student at Goldsmith College, was not to wait until an institution was going to notice him, but to do his own show. Property then was very cheap – he found a warehouse and showed not only his own work, but also his friends'. And this single act of cooperation galvanized the art world. He managed to persuade Charles Saatchi to be involved, he found sponsorship — he was very entrepreneurial.

What effect did it have?

His energy drove other groups to occupy empty spaces and help each other. There emerged hundreds of initiatives like that and the art world suddenly became very dynamic and cooperative. People are suspicious of him because he launched the phenomena with his show at Freeze in 1988 and then he closed it with big sale at Sotheby's in 2008, which coincided with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. He defined the whole era. 

Whitechapel Gallery