Modern Art Showcase Expands, Hoping to Revitalize a London Area
LONDON — The ear-splitting jackhammers on Whitechapel High Street here meld easily into the sonic landscape of this cacophonous and scruffy section of the East End, home to the Whitechapel Gallery since 1901.
For months now, the Whitechapel’s Arts and Crafts building and its next-door neighbor, a quirky 1892 structure that was formerly a library, have been shrouded in dirty green netting as construction workers swarm through the two buildings. They are being joined as part of a $20 million renovation and expansion that has shut down most of the gallery since February 2007.
More than four years ago, the Belgian architectural firm Robbrecht & Daem won a competition to enlarge the Whitechapel, the first art gallery in London built expressly to house contemporary art.
Working in collaboration with the London-based Witherford Watson Mann Architects, it is carving out 78 percent more gallery space, a vastly improved educational area, studios, a cafe, a bookstore and a research room devoted to the Whitechapel’s archive. (Although the institution boasts no permanent art collection and plans none, it has a rich archive filled with photographs, correspondence and ephemera documenting its long history.)
Until its reopening in April, visitors trying to make their way to the gallery’s offices must navigate through Angel Alley, a narrow passageway next to the original building. Although the place is basically a construction site, the staff is camping out here. And this is where Iwona Blazwick, the Whitechapel’s director, occupies a small, cluttered office with a view of another construction site, an unfinished office complex whose developers suspended work because of the current economic crisis.
“Our timing could not have been better,” Ms. Blazwick said with relief. In 2004, when the economy was still robust, she was able to secure about $5.4 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the expansion, seed money that encouraged others to give as well. She said the Whitechapel had raised all but about $735,000 of the nearly $20 million needed from sources including the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Arts Council England, the European Regional Development Fund, the London Development Agency and several charitable trusts, private donors and commercial galleries.
Ms. Blazwick said the expansion would allow the gallery to show public and private collections that “have been languishing in crates or have never before been seen by the public.” It will also continue to organize shows and commission new works.
“The Whitechapel is about presenting great art and working with a diverse community,” she said.
The Whitechapel, founded “to bring great art to the people of East London,” and the adjacent Passmore Edwards Library were built by 19th-century philanthropists to provide education and culture to an area known for its overcrowded slums, as well as its breweries, foundries, slaughterhouses and, incidentally, the notorious Jack the Ripper murders.
Inhabitants have ranged from the Sephardic Jews and Huguenot silk weavers who arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries to the Bangladeshi immigrants who streamed in during the 20th. An influx of artists has recently brought some gentrification and an explosion of galleries, with about 180 opening up over the last few years. Today the East End has the largest concentration of artists anywhere in Europe, Ms. Blazwick said.
Just as Tate Modern invigorated the downtrodden Bankside, across the river, just opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral, the expanded Whitechapel is expected to attract some 300,000 visitors a year and generate jobs and commerce locally.
The makeover was desperately needed, Ms. Blazwick said. The added space will allow the gallery to remain open continuously, whereas before it had to close about 10 weeks a year when installing new art. Its educational space was too small to accommodate even an average-size school class, and the former library had no wheelchair access.
Rather than gut the two buildings and completely remake the interior into sleek, blank white spaces, the architects opted to capitalize on the eccentric nature of both structures, retaining much of their Victorian flavor, from original brickwork to architectural details to skylights.
The Whitechapel was London’s first showcase for many of the world’s greatest postwar and contemporary artists. Its embrace of American art runs deep. In 1958 it held the first major show in Britain of Jackson Pollock’s work; in 1961 it presented Mark Rothko’s art; and in 2002, that of the photographer Nan Goldin. (It also was the first place in London to exhibit the work of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and British artists like David Hockney, Richard Long and Gilbert & George; the Whitechapel was among the first London galleries to show Lucian Freud.)
Its inaugural programming will take into account this distinguished past. In January 1939 the Whitechapel exhibited Picasso’s “Guernica” on its first and only visit to Britain. Because the painting, which is in the Reina Sofía Art Center in Madrid, is now considered too fragile to travel, the gallery decided to borrow a tapestry that Picasso gave Parisian weavers permission to produce in the 1950s. It has been hanging since 1985 at the entrance to the Security Council Room at the United Nations in New York, a gift from the estate of Nelson A. Rockefeller.
The mural-size tapestry, which depicts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, will be displayed in the former library’s central reading room as the centerpiece of an installation by Goshka Macuga, a Polish-born artist who lives in London and was a nominee for this year’s Turner Prize. The installation will be the first of a series of site-specific artworks there inspired by the history and architecture of the former library. Officials at the Whitechapel said it was too early to describe Ms. Macuga’s work other than to say that it would explore the relationship between art and propaganda.
Other exhibitions planned for the opening include a retrospective of the German sculptor Isa Genzken and a show of works from the collection of the British Council, which has been promoting the nation’s artists since 1938 but has no permanent exhibition space.
A portion of the archives will be the focus of “The Whitechapel Boys,” a show devoted to a group of painters and writers from the turn of the 20th century, most of them living in East London, who shared a Jewish ancestry.
While Ms. Blazwick acknowledged that London is already “a crowded cultural landscape,” with scores of contemporary art galleries across the city, as well as Tate Modern, she said she hoped the Whitechapel would re-emerge as a major destination.
“Our broader programming is partly cutting-edge, partly historic,” she said. “Now we will become more like a museum.”