The curator and art historian Iwona Blazwick has won the 2022 Critics’ Circle prize for visual art in recognition of her 20 years as director of the Whitechapel Gallery, where she expanded the gallery space and developed a reputation for supporting and developing the work of female artists. Blazwick left the gallery earlier this year, and later announced that she would become chair of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Public Art Expert Panel—a decision that has raised eyebrows due to the Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
She started her career as an assistant curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London where her first show featured works by Richard Deacon, Antony Gormley, Bill Woodrow and Anish Kapoor. In 2000, she co-curated the inaugural exhibition at Tate Modern, where she was head of exhibitions. During her time at Tate she was pivotal to increasing the representation of women artists in the collection and programme.
She succeeded Catherine Lampert at the Whitechapel in 2001 and is credited with enhancing the gallery’s reputation as “the artist’s gallery for everyone”. She brought important exhibitions to the East End, including by Nan Goldin, Mark Wallinger and Eileen Agar and oversaw a major expansion of the institution in 2009.
On leaving the gallery Blazwick said: “I have had the opportunity to exhibit, commission and publish some of the world’s greatest artists; to lead the expansion of the gallery. As the gallery emerges from the pandemic in a strong financial position and with programmes admired and respected around the world, now seems a good time to hand over the reins”. She was made an OBE in 2008.
In defence of her decision to take up the Saudi Arabia post, she told The Art Newspaper: “I'd rather be involved where I can help contribute to freedom of expression, to art being nurtured, because I believe art changes society. That's fundamental to who I am. And it's fundamental to my support for women throughout my career”.
The presentation of the Critics’ Circle award, a specially commissioned porcelain piece by Elizabeth Degenszejn, was made yesterday at a reception at Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in Mayfair, where the Circle’s visual arts award for "Unsung Hero" was presented to Matthew Burrows, founder of Artist Support Pledge, which has raised more than £10m to help freelance artists through the pandemic. The initiative has more recently been used to fundraise for Ukraine. Receiving his award, Burrows said: "I'm no tech expert. When I started I barely knew how to use a hashtag. But I'm very proud that nearly three years later we're still going strong."