“If you don’t like the system then you invent your own.”
Julia Peyton-Jones is Director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, located in the elegant landscapes and architecture of the Royal Park, Kensington Gardens. The Serpentine Galleries now comprise two separate small buildings that punch well above their size and are ranked among the top 100 worldwide for museum attendance.
You started your professional life as an artist. Why did you change and become a curator?
When I was studying to be an artist I worked at a huge number of different jobs. I needed to earn the money and it was another kind of window on the world. But making art and earning a salary became so intense that I decided to move away from doing the two things in tandem.
How did this happen?
I was working at the Hayward Gallery and they asked me to stay on as a curator. Joanna Drew really taught me about putting on exhibitions. It was at a time when the art scene in London was small and insular, not international.
Do you find it hard to conceive of a time when the London art scene was not international?
London in the late eighties was very different to what it is now. This was before ‘Freeze’, the 1988 exhibition curated by Damien Hirst. I included work by Damien in the 1991 Serpentine exhibition, the first I did here. I remember it very well.
What strikes you most over those 24 years since you joined the Serpentine about this small, special, very important museum?
Its size. In 2013 we opened the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in a Grade II listed former gunpowder store built in 1805. Designed by Zaha Hadid, this doubled our tiny space. Also, we do not privilege any of the five strands of our work over another: art, architecture, design, education, and public programmes. If you are small you have to be very inventive. Since 2000 we have presented our annual architecture pavilion. That commission was our answer to the lack of space.
What are your criteria for selecting architects to design the Serpentine pavilion?
To exhibit international architects who at the time of their invitation have not completed a building in England. We encourage them to be ambitious, and to do things that stretch us as an institution and them as architects. We have had some wonderful structures, by very significant figures. This year’s is by José Selgas and Lucía Cano.
What kind of an organisation are you?
We are an educational trust, a museum without a collection, publicly funded by Government through the Arts Council. We show stellar names whose work has not been seen here recently or introduce artists emerging on the international stage. We retain free admission in this beautiful park, and we attract up to 1.2 million visitors in any one year.
How much does the Arts Council give you?
They give us 15% of our annual turnover.
Who is your public?
Often a very young public, the majority in their twenties and thirties. We have schools, children, education programmes; we work with refugees and people who are disenfranchised from society or with mental disabilities. We run education programmes for people aged from 3 – 93.
How do you fund your activities?
We raise £6 million a year. We are truly grateful to the public who come to the gallery and make a donation (her dog Charlie growls his approval), but we need to have much larger donations as well, to keep the Serpentine accessible to all.
Do you also host a high society event during the London season, the Serpentine Summer Party?
It is a fund raising event for the Serpentine, a party with a purpose. In the 90s Diana, Princess of Wales was patron of our renovation appeal for our building, and she came as guest of honour to a gala dinner in that very famous black “revenge dress”. The Princess of Wales was going to come to a gala dinner to celebrate the opening of this building for which she had done so much, but she died three weeks before. Thereafter we did the “Summer Party” as it is now known, and it gives us a profile in another context.
Who do you compete with?
We compete with ourselves, to do ever better programmes.
As a small gallery why do you have two Directors, as you co-direct the Serpentine with Hans-Ulrich Obrist?
I asked him to join me in 2006. I am Director and Co-Director of exhibitions and programmes, and he is Co-Director of exhibitions and programmes and Director of international projects. I wanted us to expand as much as humanly possible, and to develop our programmes in a wide variety of different ways. We are very small, but our ambition is very large.
How many exhibitions do you curate a year?
We do eight exhibitions a year and we do one pavilion, the only scheme of its kind in the western world. We tour our exhibitions all over the world. We do a series of symposia, discussions and debates. We do the Park Nights programmes of emerging artists in the pavilion over the summer.
Does being located in a famous Royal Park, Kensington Gardens, bring in many more visitors during the summer?
Yes. It’s a gorgeous park, and we have more activities in the summer. We also have commissions that we place in Kensington Gardens, for example Anish Kapoor’s “Turning the World Upside Down.” And we have the Serpentine Marathon that Hans Ulrich invented, and this festival of ideas takes place over twenty-four hours in the last weekend of the Frieze Art Fair.
In all these years which are the most significant exhibitions and pavilions that you remember?
I always give the same answer to this question. The answer is, “The one we are working on now.” I cannot be objective about the shows, I am in love with them for the time they are here. The exhibitions by Duane Hanson and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the pavilion by “selgascano” are incredible projects that I am very proud we are presenting.
Even so, do you not recall a particularly memorable exhibition?
Each exhibition has a story to it, and each one has a particular flavour, very individual and personal, so for me it is difficult to say, “O this show is more important or distinguished than that.” There can be an extraordinary public or critical response that is completely unexpected, or changes the way an artist or designer thinks about their work.
You said that London was not an international art scene when you started at the Serpentine. What happened?
What has happened in the capital city London is remarkable, but all over the country there is an appetite for contemporary culture. People look to the present and the future instead of the past. The great turning point was the Damien Hirst ‘Freeze’ exhibition in 1988, when something fundamental happened to the national psyche. That was the catalyst, the starting point of a cultural shift, when the artists made the decision about the presentation of their work in a very interesting way: it was in spite of the art establishment, not because of the establishment.
What message did that give you?
It was very radical, very fresh and very new. It taught me a massive lesson which was, if you don’t like the system then you invent your own. This was also with the change of the demographics of London, whereby this city became open to people not born here.
And what is the ultimate result for London today?
A truly cosmopolitan city. London is a world class city, whose role is to be incredibly ambitious, brave, and culturally pioneering, across all art forms, and to develop the great inroads it has already made, and to take them even further.
Does London have a real role in art compared to New York, which considers itself the centre of the contemporary art world and has “popes” who say who is in and who is not?
Definitely. Because now if there are the twelve popes in New York there are also ten thousand little popes underneath them, and the desire for information and knowledge is so extreme, and the pace is so fast, that it is a permanent machine that needs feeding. It’s a very fast dynamic process whereby it’s not just one thing, it’s a thousand million things. Technology has played a very significant part. Anyone anywhere can be known. They may not be picked up, but they can be known.
How has technology changed the reception of art and culture?
Connection is not limited by country, age, profession or social standing, and now there is no limit to peoples’ knowledge because it’s freely available. We feel passionately about keeping the Serpentine free. How can you, in an age when so much information is free, then ask people to pay for it?
English curatorial graduates are welcomed and hired in America, and are much in demand worldwide. Is there a danger this will impoverish what happens here?
They do go away. Chris Dercon, the Director of Tate Modern, going to Germany. Alex Poots, Director of Manchester International Festival, moving to the States. And then there are notable exceptions, like Hans-Ulrich who came from Paris and has been here for ten years. It’s not a one way street, and there are no borders now.
Do your exhibitions travel all around the world?
We collaborate with our colleagues internationally and other partnering institutions. ‘Indian Highway’ travelled to nine different cities. It’s a way of communicating to different publics, and it’s a fascinating endeavour to gain a greater reach.
What are the plans that you have in mind for the future?
Hans-Ulrich and I always say: “To think the unthinkable.” Because this allows us to dream of what on the face of it may be impossible, but on further examination may be much more realistic than it may at first appear. It makes it very exciting.
What impact does contemporary art have on people, and what are they looking for?
Great art connects to people, and there is no formula, there is no one way to connect. But that connection speaks to people in ways that is a silent language, over and above the form their art may take. Great contemporary art reflects back the world in which we live: complicated, confusing, challenging, an often distressing place, but also full of great beauty and great joy.
Can you identify the reasons for the change over the years, both in the public and in the media, for the very popular reception that is now given to contemporary culture?
People are very knowledgeable now, and are freer to explore. So you can be someone of elegance and yet have an idiosyncratic element, and you can be so at any age. This means the way people express themselves is different. It is by what you wear, what you choose to have around you, the friends you have, where you travel, what you eat. It’s also very nuanced. It’s all about messaging.
So what do you think is ultimately the role of this place?
To inform and educate the widest possible public through the curatorial programmes that we present, both here and internationally, and we do that by the five strands of our programme to up to 1.2 million visitors a year. We are also very good value for money, because we have the lowest public subsidy per visitor.
3rd August, 2015
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