Curator interview: Achim Borchardt-Hume

New chief curator for Whitechapel Art Gallery:
Achim Borchardt-Hume on history, community and leaving the Tate

German-born Achim Borchardt-Hume will begin his role as Chief Curator at the newly expanded Whitechapel Gallery (The Art Newspaper, March, pp31-2) at the end of April. He will oversee all curatorial activities, including the newly created Collections Gallery and Commissions Gallery, as well as offsite projects. Dr Borchardt-Hume spent four and half years at Tate Modern as curator of modern and contemporary art, where he was responsible for “Rothko: The Late Series”, “Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World”, and “Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth” for the Turbine Hall. Previously he worked as a curator at the Barbican and exhibitions organiser at the Serpentine Gallery.

The Art Newspaper: Why did you decide to move from Tate to Whitechapel?

Achim Borchardt-Hume: I think it’s a very curious question when I get asked that, because it’s decisively a move towards the Whitechapel. The main attractions are its distinguished history, the long tradition it has of making contemporary and modern art accessible to the wider public, and the particular place it occupies within the artistic community. It’s a very attractive scale in terms of its galleries—it’s a wonderful format to do exhibitions that have a clear argument, to make a particular statement.

TAN: There’s obviously been a lot of back and forth of staff between Tate and the Whitechapel—Nicholas Serota and Iwona Blazwick… do you imagine that you might go back to the Tate at some point?

AB-H: I’ve never wondered hugely what the next step ahead would be. It’s very much about what is attractive in the moment.

TAN: Why was this new role created?

AB-H: There is the head of exhibitions, Andrea Tarsia, and Anthony Spira, who has been curator at the Whitechapel for a long time and has decided now he will be leaving. He has new horizons that he is driving towards [he will become director of Milton Keynes Gallery]—his role obviously will be replaced—and so it has to do with the organisation expanding, and all the intellectual and logistic demands that come with that, to make sure that it finds its place within the wider artistic landscape in London.

TAN: What differences do you anticipate with working at the Whitechapel compared to Tate?

AB-H: Every place has its idiosyncrasies, its particular structure and place within the panorama of art institutions in London, and the way they are perceived both locally and internationally. And each one comes with its set of challenges and advantages. At Tate you are surrounded by a huge team of colleagues, and experts in every arena, but that has a certain impact in terms of planning times required for projects. Scale is an advantage but also creates a particular set of circumstances in which to operate. I think what hugely appealed to me about the refurbished Whitechapel Gallery is the scale of the exhibition galleries, the fact that by having a particular philosophy about education and public programmes, it can critically reflect on some of the functions of a museum or that type of institution while retaining the agility of an exhibition space. The newly created Archive Gallery, for instance, allows the Whitechapel to reflect upon its own history, embedding specific exhibitions and developments in art to which it contributed into a wider historic trajectory. It would be worthwhile, for instance, to bring renewed attention to the seminal role the Whitechapel played in bringing modern international art to London through the first solo exhibitions by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Similarly, the annual commissions make for a time frame that enters into an interesting dynamic with the faster turnover of temporary exhibitions. The opening commission by Goshka Macuga, which focuses on Picasso’s Guernica and its display at the Whitechapel in 1939, is another good example how to tie these different strands together.

TAN: When the Whitechapel was established in 1901 it was quite a unique institution, and remained so for a long time, but now there are many similar competing institutions in London, the UK and internationally—how do you see the future of the Whitechapel in terms of marking itself out as different?

AB-H: Not to sound like a politician, but I’d like to slightly take the emphasis away from this idea that institutions are necessarily competing with each other. I think the Whitechapel has the potential to build on its extraordinary history, but there’s a great challenge in that too. Tate, and in particular Tate Modern, has taken with it a great many of the traditional roles of these exhibition spaces. The thing about the Whitechapel is that it can do mid-scale exhibitions, be it contemporary, be it of a particular historic focus, that are actually more difficult to realise in a large-scale institution. It has the potential to make accessible very interesting new developments in art, but also maybe shine a slightly different light on what we take as the history of art of the past 40 or 50 years and give a different rooting to that. The Whitechapel is in a particular situation in terms of the doorstep audience. It is important that whatever we do we find ways to talk about it, to mediate our activities in such a way that they become accessible and relevant to a wider community. Displacement, for instance, is a quintessential modern experience and one that is essential to the practice of many artists throughout the 20th century. It is also the lived experience of much of the local Whitechapel community, as indeed of many Londoners in general. It is about highlighting these connections between art and life, if that does not sound too grand, and the way the two interrelate, for the gallery to act as a fulcrum between practitioners and a wider public.

TAN: Will Iwona Blazwick be less involved with exhibition programming now that you’re here?

AB-H: I think it will be very much a conversation. And we’re thinking around how to further develop the shape that conversation can take between the two of us, but also within the wider Whitechapel team. Because the most important thing is to make sure that we connect with what is happening in the outside world, artistically, creatively, politically and socially, to really make sure that the programme has continued relevance to what is going on.

TAN: The programme over the next few months is very female dominated, with shows by Isa Genzken, Goskhka Macuga, Elizabeth Peyton and Sophie Calle—Iwona Blazwick said that it’s really by accident, but I wondered whether you had any thoughts on that?

AB-H: It’s a curious one, because of course one cannot fail to pick up on that, and I think Iwona would be the first to counter with: if they were all men, how many would have picked up on that? I hope one would have by now. I think they’re all very interesting artists, so I have absolutely no second thoughts on it. I don’t think it’s driven by conscious quota thinking. But I think it is done with an awareness that it’s important that we look in the right directions. Anything that doesn’t fit right into the mainstream, I’m not a great believer in regulating this through quota, but I do strongly believe that you need to put mechanisms in place to make sure that you are looking into those directions.

TAN: Have you thought about long-term programming yet?

AB-H: There is a history at the Whitechapel of doing quite distinct historic exhibitions, such as “Faces in the Crowd” [Dec 2004-March 2005]. So perhaps quite focused exhibitions on a particular historic moment, and a moment in an artist’s career that might seem quite pertinent to what is happening now. I want to make sure there is a certain political relevance to the programme.

TAN: The new Collections Gallery has already been programmed for the next year with works from the British Council. Have you been involved in choosing the guest curators for that?

AB-H: They are all decided already. We are now discussing what collection should follow next year and whether this should be a public collection, or a private collection, which is perhaps more likely, or some different type of collection altogether.

TAN: Are there any specific private collections that you’d be interested in?

AB-H: We are talking to both private collectors and those in charge of public collections that are not generally accessible at the moment. What I hope we could explore further through the Collections Gallery is what drives people or institutions to collect, what drives an organisation such as the British Council, for instance, to collect, to further our understanding of collecting as an activity. There are extraordinary examples of artist’s collections such as Sol LeWitt’s, which would be another area I would be keen to mine further.

TAN: Whitechapel is closely linked to the local community. Do you see any problems arising from that in the future, the balance between its international and local profile?

AB-H: If there’s anything I’ve learnt from the other institutions I have worked in over the past decade or so, it’s that there is never a single audience, and that when you think about the visitor, you need to be quite careful that you don’t make too many assumptions about who that should be. Fundamentally there should be a sense of respect for any person that may come to you, otherwise it becomes rather patronising and simplifying. I am aware of course that it’s easier to reach traditional core audiences than opening up to new ones, but that’s certainly a huge ambition.

TAN: Do you imagine curating shows that speak to specific audiences, or do you think that each show should speak to everybody?

AB-H: Well no, I think it’s very difficult to say that one can do anything that speaks to everybody. But I also don’t believe that one can address specific audiences in that way. Being German I don’t have a particular penchant for German art, it’s something that is more familiar to me perhaps, I grew up there, but I’m quite aware that I may actually react rather sensitively when I feel there is a very facile equation being made as to why I ought to be interested in something. And I guess that is true for a great many other people. There may be, like the exhibition curated by Sunil Gupta of photography from South Asia [at the Whitechapel from 15 January to 11 April 2010], that there’s a certain pertinence to it happening at the Whitechapel. But I don’t see that so much as being addressed to that specific audience, only because there is such a longstanding history of how particularly Britain relates to India. I’m very interested to see how that might be captured in photography, and how you may construct a sense of identity through the use of photography.
I would hope that we are continuously aware of a local audience and the way we address this audience. I would hope particularly if we manage to reach younger people, that they will stick with us, so as they grow up they will become loyal audiences to the place. And then inform again what we do. But not in a very direct equation of that kind, I would be very nervous about that.

TAN: Whitechapel has always been known as an institution that is very sympathetic to artists, and has a strong reputation for close collaboration. How do you feel about the problems that can arise when an artist and the gallery’s wishes or expectations clash?

AB-H: It’s a question that’s really critical for an institution such as this, to be driven by artists. Every institution has to serve a number of stakeholders, but it’s critical that art and artists are always at the beginning of this food chain. There is always, when working with artists, a wish that an institution should be a facilitator, and for an artist to really expand their practice, to make it a constructive challenge for all involved, hopefully in a very amicable and collaborative spirit. But of course it’s unavoidable that if you strongly believe in something and you want to make something, there will be times of conflict. It’s really a process of continuous negotiation actually.

TAN: Regarding the horizontal/vertical debate around certain paintings in your Tate Rothko exhibition (TAN, December, p2), obviously you couldn’t consult the artist, but I suppose the interesting thing is that in the end the curator will always make the final decision. But how did you feel about that debate in the end?

AB-H: I was obviously quite aware of which way around I hung those paintings in the end, standing in a very good long lineage there of Tate curators who have done so before me for the very same reasons. But I think the critical thing I took away from that exhibition, and to some degree perhaps from that debate, was that it was very important that something people had become very comfortable with—like a comfy old cardigan that you put on and it gives you that very good feeling—to create a new place where you once again for a moment capture the extraordinary existential endeavour that underpinned Rothko’s practice, and the radical nature of that work. It was very interesting to do that through an exhibition that had a quite simple, straightforward argument, and to see how people reacted to that.

This article was published in The Art Newspaper, April 2009, p14. To see it in context, click on the PDF link below.

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