Six Questions with Zoe Whitley
Dr Zoe Whitley is Curator, International Art at Tate Modern in London, UK.
Zoe is also the curator attached to the British Pavilion for the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019 and is a nominee of the Art, Design and Craft category within the h100 Awards.
1. When were you first introduced to art?
I was first introduced to visual art by my mother and to the pleasure of being creative in general by my grandmother, who was a junior high school Home Economics teacher but spent most of her free time designing and making clothes. Growing up in Washington, D.C. where so many the city’s museums, monuments and sculpture gardens are free to enter, my family often took me to see exhibitions and experience cultural festivals.
2. When curating exhibitions what do you look for and what excites you?
I’m always looking to learn something I didn’t know before and to experience the thrill of being shown something I might not have otherwise seen or felt. I’m constantly excited by talking to and learning from artists. My aim is to then share and translate what I’ve learned and been shown so that other people can also experience the sights, sounds and ideas that someone is working with.
3. If you weren’t a Curator, what other path would you have chosen?
There was a time in my life when I really wanted to be a shoe designer. When I was 19, I walked into a shoe repair shop owned by an Italian family and through their generosity, I was informally their apprentice for about a year learning how to pare, punch and stitch leather (and also to share the best lunches I’ve ever eaten!). Using their offcuts – and a lot of their help! – I made one forest green leather shoe, piped in burgundy, sized for a small child. I still have it somewhere…
4. What is the most challenging part of your job?
I’m an enthusiastic person by nature and I try to have a “Yes, we can!”/ “Anything is possible” outlook. Of course the reality is there are constraints of time, of budget and of circumstance that mean one constantly has to find creative solutions to problems, which means wanting to help artists realise their wildest Technicolor dreams but having to balance those against far greyer realities.
5. Is there anything in particular that you believe drives your work?
My favourite quote about art comes from one of the anonymous members of the Guerrilla Girls feminist art collective, who adopts the pseudonym Frida Kahlo. She was interviewed by Stephen Colbert in 2016 and 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.” I care about making sure as many voices are heard as possible.
6. If you could sum yourself up in three words, what would they be?
3. Thoughtful (as in, literally a head full of thoughts – but hopefully I’m considerate, too!)