Now Year-Round: The New Whitechapel Gallery

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Published April 6, 2009


All photography: Richard Bryant

The Whitechapel Gallery set up shop in East London in 1901, before the neighborhood was crawling with posh artist types and dilapidated East End factories were turned into members-only social clubs. In fact, the Gallery’s history is a history of firsts: In 1939, the Guernica was displayed at Whitechapel, its first and only visit to Britain; in 1958, the Gallery presented Jackson Pollock’s first major show in Britain; and in 1970 and 1971, the first shows of David Hockney, Gilbert & George and Richard Long were staged here. The institution has launched and supported the careers of countless artists, among them Richard Hamilton, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth, Hockney, Gilbert & George, and Bridget Riley.

 

£13 million and two years of construction since the expansion broke ground (or rather walls) in 2007, the Whitechapel Gallery isn’t just one of London’s seminal modern art institutions but it’s also more than two times larger and-despite being nuzzled between a KFC and a seedy news agent—it’s also an architectural destination. Designed by Belgian architects Robbrecht en Daem (with London practice Witherford Watson Mann Architects), the development unifies the two landmark buildings, adding smart new galleries, a research room for Whitechapel’s century-old archive, and an education and research tower, leaving the gallery the flexibility to remain open all year, even while shows are in transition.

To celebrate the opening, Turner Prize-nominated artist Goshka Macuga helped convince Margaretta Rockefeller to lend Whitechapel the 20-foot long Guernica tapestry for a year (snatching it from the UN building in New York, where it has been housed since ‘85). But the buck doesn’t stop there. Nine inaugural shows grace the new building, including the first retrospective by German sculptor Isa Genzken and an exhibition of “Great Early Buys from the British Council Collection,” curated by Michael Craig-Martin and including works by Lucian Freud, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Bridget Riley, Peter Doig, Sarah Lucas and Chris Ofili, as well as a solo show by Craig-Martin, among others. With a history spanning  Jack the Ripper and Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, Whitechapel now has a future in store.