By Kate Bussmann, on September 2, 2022

Dawn Till Dusk:
A Curator’s Guide to London’s Most Exciting Art

Art curator Zoé Whitley has a knack for nurturing up-and-coming UK talents, many of whom go on to become tomorrow’s most buzzed-about art stars. We talk to the director of London's groundbreaking Chisenhale Gallery about her favorite places to see London’s most compelling art.

“Artists make cities great,” says curator Zoé Whitley. American-born and raised, she has come to know and love London and its art scene since moving here just over 20 years ago. She describes her job, as director of the independent non-profit Chisenhale Gallery, as “a hype man – like Flavor Flav from Public Enemy,” and her enthusiasm truly is infectious.

Tate Modern: so different from other institutions’ “marble columns”

“London is a city that has world-class museums and galleries and the fact that they’re free to enter means something particular for access, not just for tourists but also for the people who call London home,” she says. “The system of art colleges – particularly in the 1980s, 1990s and before, when it was free to attend – made a huge difference in the dynamism and experimentation of the city and what it represents. We’re still benefiting from that. It’s a global city that welcomes people from all walks of life, myself included. I’m not from here, but I’ve made a home here. There are so many creative tribes, and that continues to be exciting.”

The point at which Whitley arrived in the UK coincided with two seismic moments in the city’s art scene: The British government’s decision to make many of the major national galleries and museums free to enter (although you may have to pay to see special exhibitions); and the opening of Tate Modern – the location of one of her first dates with her now-husband, with whom she has a daughter – which was utterly different from the “marble columns” of other major institutions.

In her first, formative job, as an assistant curator at the prestigious Victoria & Albert Museum, Whitley recalls being taught “to be civically minded. There was a generosity of knowledge, and a full-service ethos to what it meant to be a custodian of a public collection, that it’s meant to belong to all of us – whether that meant answering phones on a Saturday or working hard to write in plain English so you don’t need a PhD to understand what someone’s saying about a work of art.”

“I love that I get to experience London as a city through artists’ eyes.”

Zoé Whitley

Later, she took on a joint curatorial role at the esteemed Tate Modern and Tate Britain, two of the UK’s four Tate galleries, which house the national collection of modern art, as well as British art from the 16th century. At Tate Modern, she co-curated the blockbuster 2017 exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, before moving to the Hayward Gallery as senior curator, and curating the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

The Chisenhale: “We are the place where artists come to see other artists’ work”

Whitley joined Chisenhale Gallery in 2020. Based on a residential street in east London, with a primary school opposite and the Regent’s Canal behind, she works hard to ensure it’s a welcoming space for the local community. Its ethos is to nurture artists over a year or more; many of those artists eventually go on to have major exhibitions at other galleries, from Lubaina Himid to Hew Locke, who are currently showing at Tate Modern and Britain respectively. “The fact that we are the place where artists come to see other artists’ work is something that we take really seriously,” she says.

What’s more, having been established by artists who were evicted from Butler’s Wharf by property developers, Chisenhale itself tells a story about surviving as a creative. “I live in south-east London, an area which some artists and creatives can still afford, but it gets harder to live in great cities like this,” says Whitley. “The collective spirit of artists finding a way to make that happen makes places incredibly interesting. I love that I get to experience London as a city through artists’ eyes.” Here, she shares her recommendations for viewing some of London’s most interesting art.


Dusk is a magical time of day at Regents Canal, near the Chisenhale Gallery

A Curator’s Guide To London

The London art scene is vast and diverse, but Whitley has recommendations for the best spots to see everything from public art in Hackney to cutting edge works shown in a former parking garage in Peckham. Read on for a curator's tour of the London scene.

Expedia: What are you looking forward to seeing?
Es Devlin’s project, Come Home Again, at Tate Modern [September 16-25, 2022] will be really special. She’s a set and stage designer, including for Beyoncé and Adele and the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. It will be in the garden area, a wonderful call-and-response between evensong and songs that are sung at St Paul’s, about nature and the human and non-human ecosystem.

Warm Shores: “To see yourself represented makes a huge difference in people’s lives.”

Favorite place to experience culture near your home?
In the summer months, I go to Bold Tendencies, in Peckham Levels, a former multi-story car park in Peckham, for great contemporary art commissions. You can also hear classical music and live performances there, and have great drinks and a meal at Frank’s. It’s one of those things London does really well.

Best way to see art with kids in London?
Any place can be great for kids. I used to have my daughter take me round Tate Britain. I’d say, “When you’re tired, we’ll get a sandwich and walk along the Thames, but first let’s walk through the gallery and maybe we’ll stop and look at an artwork.” I’ve had some amazing conversations with my daughter as a result of that. The main thing is to keep it fun.

Best galleries off the beaten track?
For contemporary art, I love Gasworks, just behind the Oval Cricket Ground in Vauxhall. The way they give first shows to artists is not dissimilar to Chisenhale. And Delfina Foundation is a great place to meet artists from around the world. 

Best budget day out in London?
Come to Chisenhale! Get the no8 bus across town and you’ll have a great day out. After your visit, go to E3 Vegan or chew up at Cafe East, then take a walk on the Regent’s Canal. You won’t be disappointed.

What do you say to someone who finds galleries intimidating?
A lot of them are making an effort for that not to be the case any more – there’s less likely to be an invigilator telling you to keep your voice down. I was part of the team that started V&A Friday Late – the first museum to do late night events, and they were incredibly successful. There are often activities, so it’s not just looking at something or reading a label on the wall. 

Favorite public art?
I love Warm Shores by Thomas J Price, in front of Hackney Town Hall – I love to see people stop and look at it. To see yourself represented, it makes a huge difference in people’s lives. Veronica Ryan’s fruit sculptures, which honor the Windrush Generation, are not far from there. And I’m really excited about The World Reimagined, a series of globes commissioned by Ashley Shaw-Scott Adjaye that will be across the UK, exploring the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.

“I love that I get to experience London as a city through artists’ eyes.”

Where's a place for a great day trip for art-lovers?
Theo: Take a train to Margate – you can have a beach day and see some art, too. Visit the Quench Gallery, which is run by artists, the Turner Contemporary and Carl Friedman Gallery. I know a lot of people who have moved there and are doing great things – the joke is that it’s “Hackney-on-Sea.”

This is an installment of “Dawn Till Dusk,” an Expedia-produced series that digs into the buzzing creative cultures of some of the world’s most fascinating cities. Each episode reveals some of the most delightfully unexpected facets of urban creativity that make each city worth your much-coveted vacation days. Find the first, second, and third installment here, or check out our complete London guide for even more tips and inspiration.