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Women in Leadership: Zoé Whitley, Director of Chisenhale Gallery

Category: Women in Leadership, Gender Focus, International Women's day, Arts Council England, Women in Arts, celebrating women, female leaders

Gender Focus

Continuing our International Women’s Day celebrations, we catch up with Zoé Whitley. She talks to us about her role as Director of Chisenhale Gallery and gives advice to women in the early stages of starting their career. She reflects on the struggles of the past year, as well as looking forward to their future plans.    


Zoé Whitley, Director of Chisenhale Gallery


Chisenhale Gallery is an organisation that prides itself as being one of London’s most innovative forums for art, can you tell us more and the part you play as the Director? 

Chisenhale was founded by artists and is housed in a former veneer factory and brewery warehouse in East London. It took an undeniably innovative vision to ask ‘what would happen if…?’, transforming that raw space into a world-class, non-profit gallery. I view my role as continuing and extending that spirit of experimentation by investing in artists and leading a team who are committed to not resting on our past laurels but constantly championing new voices, advocating for new approaches and really thinking deeply and carefully about how we can nurture and bring to life artists’ ideas through new commissions.  


You work as a partner on New Creatives, a series of commissioning opportunities for emerging artists aged 16 - 30, what is Chisenhale’s role in this and where are you up to with the project? 

 New Creatives is a partnership between us, the Arts Council, the BBC and fellow production partners Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), NTS, SPACE, Dazed Media, Werkflow and Kingston School of Art. It is a brilliant example of how Chisenhale values collaboration through recognising the skills others can contribute to our work and a genuine desire to share our expertise readily. We provide mentoring and production support, just as we do for artists with whom we work on major commissions in the gallery.  As a multi-year programme, we’ve been fortunate to work with artist Tom Foskett-Barnes and artist and writer Sarah Roselle Khan on an audio commission and a short film, respectively. Now in year two, we are working with artist Felix Taylor. He is mid-way through the creation of a new soundscape based on his ongoing research merging field recordings, family oral histories and music samples. 


Image courtesy of the artist. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery as part of New Creatives. With thanks to Black Cultural Archives, London


Can you tell us how Covid-19 has affected Chisenhale Gallery and how the Government's Culture Recovery Fund has helped support you? 

Covid-19 has forced us to reconsider in meaningful ways how we deliver our mission beyond the gallery. We’ve been asking how we can contribute to the creative wellbeing of our communities in different forms - through our unique processes of commissioning new works of art and using both our international reach as well as recognising our dynamic local neighbourhood. The Government’s Culture Recovery Fund has allowed us to maintain our artist-centred approach and collaborative ethos through establishing new local partnerships and putting into place a robust new plan for online participation which we are rolling out over the coming months.


Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London. Image courtesy the artist. Opening at Chisenhale Gallery from late May 2021.


You’re a Founding Member of the Association of Women in the Arts (AWITA), supporting women in the sector through networking, professional development and mentoring. What advice would you give to women in the early stages of starting a career in the creative and cultural sectors? 

I shared advice on AWITA’s website, and at the risk of being repetitive, I really do believe in this quote. The inimitable Phyllida Barlow was asked to reflect on representing Britain at the 2017 Venice Biennale. She said, 

"... there are ways of being successful that are private. Achieving public recognition and approval – that seems to me a very small part of being successful... Success happens in all sorts of ways. There’s sensational success. There’s youth success. And there’s the lifetime success of [...] keeping going, against hell and high water."

Artist Deborah Roberts told me how much it inspired her too, when I shared it with her, because she also saw herself and her journey within its wisdom.  With the ubiquity of social media, there are so many opportunities for us to compare ourselves to other people and to feel, more often than not, that we don’t measure up. Persevere!  


Can you tell us about a piece of work/achievement you’re proud of? 

I’m really proud of my team at Chisenhale Gallery. The plans we’ve made (and re-made! And re-made again!) to safely re-open the gallery, to remain future-focused, and to support the artists we are working with throughout is a source of pride for me every day. Like everyone, we have not had a smooth or easy year but the extent to which the team has demonstrated resilience and exhibited the capacity to renew and rebuild with good humour and a great deal of care feels like the biggest achievement I could hope for as a new director.

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