Gallery profile: Whitechapel

Time Out pays a visit to the Whitechapel Art Gallery, one of the first purpose-built art galleries in this country

  • Gallery profile: Whitechapel

    The Whitechapel's Iwona Blazwick at the Art Plus Drama Party

  • Conceived by a priest, Henry Barnett, the Whitechapel was one of the first art galleries to be purpose-built in this country, in 1901. The vaulted ceilings owe much to religious architecture, but the Whitechapel was founded for a different sort of worship; ‘to bring great art to the people of the East End,’ says current director Iwona Blazwick. ‘It was part of the zeal of Victorian philanthropists who made the East End their mission instead of Africa. They saw it as equally dark.’ In 1939, when the Stepney Trade Union wanted to raise consciousness of the Spanish Civil War, it hired the gallery to show Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ – the only time it has been here. ‘Clement Atlee gave a rousing speech and Picasso asked that everyone who came to see the painting donate a pair of shoes for the freedom fighters in Spain,’ says Blazwick. ‘The Whitechapel has never lost its relationship with politics.’

    Local artists were given a platform as early as 1931 in the East End Academy that has reverted to its original name and aims. ‘We have kept that continuity, because a lot of people like David Hockney and Rachel Whiteread had their first shows here. If someone had asked where was the centre of the art world in 1905, you’d have said Paris. 1965? New York. 2005? London – there’s no doubt about that.’ The next phase for this iconic art venue is expansion into the adjacent library (by March 2009). ‘It will have a stronger night- time presence, which fits in with the Time Out First Thursdays initiative. You need somewhere to start from, where you can have a coffee and pick up a map.’

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