Zoé Whitley Is Helping Lead a Transformation of the Arts in the U.K.

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Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Los Angeles, Whitley moved to London nearly 20 years ago. Upon relocation, she would complete a master’s degree in the history of design from the Royal College of Art and later earn her Ph.D. from the University of Central Lancashire under the supervision of the Turner Prize–winning artist and curator Lubaina Himid. “A key lesson I learned,” Whitley reminisced, “is one that Himid taught me early on: Listen to artists!”Whitley explained how, at the start of her museum career, she witnessed firsthand how certain curatorial practices were at odds with what was best for artists. “Standout experiences include those where I’ve been able to keep the artist’s needs foremost while marshalling the best of the institution to support the artist and their practice,” she said. In the years since, Whitley has become a powerful advocate for artists in her role as a curator.

Between the pandemic and the global outcry for institutional accountability through the long-standing Black Lives Matter movement, this past year has tested the mettle of many cultural leaders. In the U.K., museums and galleries were subject to constantly vacillating shutdowns. Around the world, institutions rushed to declare their support for and will to change, often with easy and quick gestures like social media posts, newly founded diversity and inclusion roles, and nebulous pledges to “do better.”

“Everything has changed,” said Whitley. “I’m finding it productive that no matter how seasoned or fledgling someone might be in their leadership position, we are all navigating the ongoing effects of a global health crisis and its unknown aftermath on the cultural sector and the livelihoods of artists.”

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