The woman who discovered Damien Hirst

She now runs one of London’s most innovative galleries. GC talks to Iwona Blazwick, Britain’s most famous female curator.

Iwona Blazwick remembers the first time she saw a piece of work by Damien Hirst. Blazwick was a young curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London and Hirst, a student at the time, had submitted one of his now-famous medicine cabinets to an open competition. “It was the fact that it was so squeaky clean, so brand new, so exquisitely realised,” she says. “The drugs inside it were also very particular. It was just extraordinary.” She pauses, then says: “Do you know, I could have bought it for £1,000 – but I didn’t have £1,000. Even then, Damien was very specific about his prices.” With this, she throws her head back and laughs.

Being the woman who discovered Hirst – she gave him his first solo show at a public art gallery – is just one of the many interesting things about Iwona Blazwick. As the director of the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, a position she has held for 13 years, she is often referred to as the most important woman in British art. A respected curator, it was she who spotted the potential of not just Hirst but his Young British Artists [YBA] friends too, many of whom she still knows. She played a vital role in the development of the Tate Modern and its headline-grabbing installations. She is an outspoken champion of the arts, is the chair of the London Cultural Strategy Group, on the advisory board of the Government Art Collection and was awarded an OBE in 2007 for services to art. She is also the person many people believe could succeed Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate museums, in the country’s biggest job in art.

For someone with such a stellar career in a world often associated with hype and ego, Blazwick is remarkably understated. When we meet Blazwick, 59, is wearing an appropriately minimalist black and white shift dress, her blond hair is loose and the only visible make-up is her magenta lipstick. At first she seems rather earnest, scholarly even, but once she begins to talk about art she sparkles with energy and warmth.

She grew up in southeast London, the child of Polish architects who both painted and instilled in her a passion for art and design. After studying English and fine art at Exeter University, she worked as a publisher of art books and dabbled with becoming an artist herself before realising she was better at writing about art and presenting it than making it (“a moment of wonderful clarity and the world was spared a very mediocre artist,” she has said). Today she lives in east London with her husband Richard Noble, a lecturer in fine art, and their teenage daughter Bella.

Blazwick cut her teeth as a curator at the ICA in the 1980s, where she worked with Sandy Nairne (now the director of the National Portrait Gallery), whom she describes as “visionary”. She went to New York, met Cindy Sherman and gave Sherman her first solo show in Britain. She organised exhibitions of the then-emerging British sculptors Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor. As the director of exhibitions and displays at the Tate in the late 1990s, Blazwick was responsible for the Tate Modern’s permanent collection being grouped thematically rather than chronologically, something that exasperated art critics. “At the time it was totally radical but now everyone is doing it,” she says, smiling.

Now in her fourth decade as a curator, Blazwick has witnessed the British art scene change beyond recognition. “I remember the exhibition opening of a major international artist when I was at the ICA in the 1980s and there were a total of 20 people there, eight of whom were members of staff,” she says. A decade later Blazwick found herself at the centre of a watershed. For many, Hirst has become a victim of his own success and is now often dismissed as a cynical, tiresome self-publicist. Blazwick, on the other hand, is very clear that not only was he gifted, but changed the British art scene forever. “What Damien did, most shockingly for the art world, was to say, ‘F— you, I’m not waiting. I’m not going to sit waiting for the ICA or the Serpentine or Whitechapel to come knocking at my door. I’m going to do it myself’.”

It was a time when, to the horror of many art critics, conceptual art staggered drunken and leering into the spotlight. In 1988 Hirst organised Freeze, an exhibition of his and his Goldsmiths contemporaries’ work at an empty Port of London Authority building. Blazwick says that, until then, artists waited until they were invited to exhibit, or, as she puts it, “the protocol was you worked alone in your studio with a steady northern light, perhaps copying from antiquities. To have anything to do with commercial galleries was seen as slightly corrupting.”

These days London is a serious contender in the international art world. Spend an hour at the annual Frieze art fair and it is impossible to avoid the expensively coiffured, tanned couples walking around with their personal art advisor whispering in their ears. These are people who, until recently, would have spent their money elsewhere. “London, in terms of the art market, was a bit of a backwater until Frieze made it fashionable,” Blazwick says. “It’s become a bit like Cannes or the Oscars – it’s a big moment for the international professional art world to have a huge get-together. Because of Britain’s geography it means that colleagues from America will come to London to meet colleagues from Europe, Japan and so on.”

Blazwick says this globalisation of the art world has had a levelling effect, the sense now being that it is anyone’s game. “Fifty years ago you could have said there’s a top 10 league of artists but I do not think you can say that anymore. It is less hierarchical and I think it is a good thing. It is more diverse, more cosmopolitan.”

But the fact there are now so many emerging art scenes has made her job as a curator – discovering new talent – even more demanding.

Fifty years ago you could have said there’s a top 10 league of artists but I do not think you can say that anymore

The world of a high-profile curator is, she admits, “very competitive” and she spends a lot of time on aeroplanes.

“How on earth do you cover it all when it’s India, Lebanon, Norway?” she says. “We all worry about our carbon footprint and how to navigate all this.”

This broadening of the market means there is also a fevered search for undiscovered – and potentially lucrative – new talent. “Now we’re seeing artists being recognised from Latin America, the Middle East and so on, so the geography of it has expanded and the collector base has expanded,” Blazwick says. “That demand, the appetite to collect those works, drives the prices up, even though that is an inevitable part of the market. It is problematic because then the insurance premiums go up and that makes it all the more difficult for the public sector to show those works.

“So, ironically, having been part of the process of giving them visibility and providing a platform for them, we then find ourselves in a situation where we struggle to afford to be able to present these very artists because their market values have gone up.”

What about the jaw-dropping amounts that certain artworks fetch at auction? Last year Jeff Koons became the most expensive living artist when his Balloon Dog sculpture sold for $58.4 million.

“We have these headline-grabbing results in auction houses but when you look at the artists who get those prices they are a tiny, tiny percentage,” she says. “We can be bedazzled by a few high-profile names but for the majority of artists that is not the reality. There was a shocking statistic that came out a few months ago, which stated that the average salary for an artist in Britain is £10,000 a year.”


Blazwick says the “image of the starving artist in a garret is now such a cliche” but supporting the careers of young artists is something she is passionate about. In 2007, she set up the biannual MaxMara Art Prize for Women in collaboration with the fashion house. The winner is given a six-month artist’s residency in Italy with the work produced there exhibited at the Whitechapel (one winner, Laure Prouvost, went on to win the Turner Prize in 2013). Despite the many brilliant, talented female artists in Britain, Blazwick believes the odds are still stacked against them; even a year’s maternity leave can damage an artist’s career, she says.

“Just look at the difference between the highest amount paid for a living female artist and a living male artist – it is huge.”

Although there is “an amazing roll-call of women artists” in Britain, Blazwick says there are not enough role models for young women. “There should be more women leading things, in visible positions, doing all the marvellous things they do as politicians, scientists – and artists, of course.”


Which brings us to the rumours of her potential next career move: taking over from Serota at Tate. “Hmm,” Blazwick says, stifling a groan. “People always ask that, which is very flattering. It’s very nice to be considered to have the possibility of following in such great footsteps because Nick is a phenomenon and something of a mentor for us all. What he has done is quite extraordinary. But I don’t think he is leaving any time soon.”

Besides, such a prominent position might not suit Blazwick, who has a habit of criticising politicians’ attitude to the arts. The most animated she becomes during our conversation is on the subject of arts funding. “There is a fear among politicians about culture. They think it’s not a vote winner but I beg to differ,” she says. At the heart of it, she believes, is a failure to recognise how essential creativity and ideas are to the economy. “We have a proven connection between any kind of creative industry, innovation and prosperity,” she says, banging her palm on the table. “Who made Apple great? A kid from Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design. If you give people access to an art education it makes them self-reliant, entrepreneurial, innovative and that is where the future lies. We have to have the arts. We ignore it and underfund it at our peril.”

A successful curator, rather like a successful artist, must live and breathe the job and Blazwick is rarely “off”. She admits that even on holiday she finds it impossible not to go to see art (she tells me she was recently in Vancouver, where she saw two “transformative” exhibitions on Chinese art).


“And I always have a suitcase full of magazines I haven’t got round to reading all year,” she says, laughing. “My heaven is sitting on a plane with Art Forum and Frieze.”

It may be a world of international travel, larger-than-life personalities and glamorous parties but Blazwick says there is no question what her favourite part of the job is. “Spending time with the artist, understanding where they come from, what influences them, everything from the quality of light, to what they’ve got stuck up on the walls in the studio, to the materials they’re using and the social and political context in which they’re working,” she says. “That and actually installing the work – that’s the cherry on the cake, because the rest of it is admin and finances, which can be exhausting. The moment when you are in the space with the artist and the work of art, there is nothing like that.”