Meet the alchemist of exhibitions, Lydia Yee

By Farah Shafiq

5 minute read

More often than not, a love of art finds its roots in a gallery.

We’ve all sought out a specific exhibition, followed our favourite artists, become completely absorbed in a piece of work on display, and made repeat visits to those spaces that provide peaceful sanctuary. Who’s responsible for creating these alchemical atmospheres? The gallery curator.  

Lydia Yee has been Chief Curator at London’s Whitechapel Gallery since 2015, overseeing the exhibitions programme and the team tasked with its delivery. Previously, she held curatorial positions at the Barbican Art Gallery and the Bronx Museum of the Arts; and was co-curator of British Art Show 8 and Frieze Talks. 

“I really enjoy working with artists and providing a platform for the public to engage with their work,” Yee tells us. “Exhibition making is a way to tell stories, to explore social and cultural histories and to cross disciplines.” Her exhibition essentials? “Great art, thought-provoking ideas and to be relevant to diverse audiences.” Noted. 

Here, we discuss the curatorial landscape, exhibition highlights and which artists to look out for this year. 

Whitechapel 24 Credit David Parrypa Wire Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery
Top: Lydia Yee; photography by Christa Holka. Above: Whitechapel Gallery; photography by David Parry/PA Wire

What’s your starting point when curating an exhibition?

There isn’t necessarily a single starting point for an exhibition. It involves a lot of looking and learning over time. The 2020 exhibition Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium at Whitechapel Gallery, for example, had its origins in research I began for another project. Through conversations with artists, including Michael Armitage, Nicole Eisenman and Dana Schutz, it evolved into an exhibition examining experimental and socially engaged approaches to figurative painting.

How do you go about selecting the featured work?

It has to start with the artists. You might have some ideas of what you’d like to include, but it’s important to look and listen as they can open your eyes and mind to things you hadn’t previously considered.

What, for you, makes a good exhibition space?

While exhibitions can be mounted in different types of space, good proportions and light are key, as are the character, context and history of the space. Exhibitions look great if they work with the particular qualities of the space rather than fight against them. 

What’s the trickiest part of curating?

In a place like London, there is a lot of competition from museums, other public galleries and, increasingly, commercial galleries who have more resources to mount significant exhibitions. If you aren’t nimble and responsive someone else will get there first.

Eileen Agar Dance Of Peace
Dance of Peace, 1945 by Eileen Agar; ©Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Images

What is the exhibition you’re most proud of, to date?

In 2001, I co-curated with Franklin Sirmans an exhibition titled One Planet Under A Groove: Hip-Hop And Contemporary Art at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. The exhibition included work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sanford Biggers, Renée Green, David Hammons, Chris Ofili, Adrian Piper and Martin Wong, among others, and focused on hip-hop and street culture as well as race and police brutality. Nearly 20 years on it still feels very relevant. “With minimal resources and maximum diversity,” art critic Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times, it is “a benefit to both the art audiences of today and the curators of the future.”

And your favourite exhibition, curated by someone else?

Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power, curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, at Tate Modern was really powerful and will be influential for future generations. I’ve also really enjoyed exhibitions by non-professional curators. Duro Olowu’s Making & Unmaking at Camden Art Centre and JW Anderson’s Disobedient Bodies at The Hepworth Wakefield were beautiful, thoughtful and took liberties that museum curators cannot.

Which artists are on your radar for 2021?

I am particularly looking forward to solo exhibitions of the following artists: James Barnor (Serpentine Gallery, London), Sanford Biggers (Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York), Simone Forti (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), Ulla von Brandenburg (Palais de Tokyo), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (Tate Britain, London) and Yu Ji (Chisenhale Gallery, London).

And finally, your best advice for someone looking to start their own contemporary art collection?

Curating and collecting are different, but both involve research and looking. I would advise someone seeking to start their own collection to go see exhibitions; speak to artists, curators and gallerists, and join a patrons group to meet others who are eager to share their knowledge and passion about contemporary art. 

Whitechapel Gallery’s next headline exhibition will be the largest retrospective to date of the work of Eileen Agar. In 2021 (pandemic permitting), the gallery will also be hosting the second artist-curated display of works drawn from the Hiscox Collection; a new commission by filmmaker Ayo Akingbade; and an archive show dedicated to the women of Surrealism. Nalini Malani’s Can You Hear Me? will also continue into June. Find out more about each show here.

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