Julia Peyton-Jones

Julia Peyton-Jones: “You need that virtuous circle”

Short Profile

Name: Dame Julia Peyton-Jones DBE
DOB: 18 February 1952
Place of birth: England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Curator, Gallerist

Ms. Peyton-Jones, has the art world become more democratic over the years?

Yes, but it’s not about the scale, it’s about attitude. I come from a generation whereby looking at art was almost a private activity. There weren’t openings, it was more like a group of people interested in the same thing. It’s been said many times but the art world was a very small and insular place, which was really such a closed society. It was just very inward looking.

You once said that Damien Hirst’s Freeze 1988 exhibition where 16 young artists displayed their work in a Docklands warehouse helped to change all that.

It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It was such a tour de force. What was interesting about it was that there were no impediments: the fact that they were students, the fact that they didn’t have a lot of money, the fact that they didn’t have a gallery, the fact that they didn’t have a huge amount of experience, the fact that they didn’t have publicists… None of it mattered. At that point, artists weren’t going outside the system to take matters into their own hands. And this is what this group had done to a very powerful effect. I think that was the beginning of the cult of the artist.

“There was an audience for it, there was funding for it. The fascination with culture was going to stay.”

You mean because Hirst then went on to become one of the world’s most notorious contemporary artists?

These artists were very confident, but they were also very knowledgeable, very aware. They knew exactly what they were doing, they knew what they wanted, and they got on and did it. And that piqued real interest in contemporary art. During the time I worked at the Serpentine Gallery, we never paid one penny for advertising because the press played such an important role in making contemporary art noticeable in the UK and in highlighting the awareness of it. At first, the coverage was from the vision of outrage.

Why outrage?

When I first started at Serpentine, I was always asked things like, “Why is this art? A child of three could do this.” But then gradually that fell away and the emphasis changed so that people couldn’t say, “Oh, I don’t understand contemporary art.”

They couldn’t simply dismiss it because they didn’t understand it.

The fact of the matter is: it wasn’t that people liked it any better — they didn’t, most probably. But they weren’t able to say it. And up until that point, they were able to say, “I don’t like this. I don’t understand it, I don’t want to have it near me.” It was a rolling program of change throughout the nineties, so that by the time we got to the 2000s, it became clear that contemporary art wasn’t a flash in the pan. There was an audience for it, there was funding for it. The fascination with culture was going to stay.

And it even became a desirable association.

It seems that we have got to the point where the strength of the art world is that so many people are engaged and it has a certain attraction — one could even say glamour.

Is that a good thing, in your mind?

Well, it’s not entirely ideal. There is a kind of virtuous circle that is necessary for people who maybe don’t know much about art but who can certainly afford to buy it and fund it, therefore making a serious contribution to the programs in public institutions and indeed, the economy of artists. But you need that virtuous circle. It’s that feeling of people kind of dying to get a piece of it because they think it’s like going to a party. It’s part of a structure that makes people who perhaps don’t know very much about art want to be connected to it: it’s fun, it’s engaging, there’s a feeling that this is where the energy is, this is where the focus is.

I guess all you can hope for is that they walk away with an understanding of the art they’re looking at.

You know, at the very heart of my being, one of the things I feel passionate about is that people can see art for free. And that they can see art of the highest caliber. Of course, that then means that you have to attract them to the gallery, and not simply hand them things that they understand necessarily. When I took over the Serpentine, it was this beautiful little jewel of a gallery with no collections in the center of London in a Royal park. We wanted to help educate people about what contemporary art is doing and why it’s important. And so, part of my mantra was “think the unthinkable,” which I suppose was having the ambition to think that the Serpentine could make a contribution to the culture of our time.

“What I find endlessly inspiring these days is the idea that anything is possible.”

How did that mantra manifest itself in the gallery’s exhibitions and shows? Was it a motivation to take risks?

All along the way, we did shows that challenged us in a variety of ways. It was very, very exciting. When Hans Ulrich Obrist first arrived we did a show together called China Power Station at the defunct Battersea Power Station, a site that no member of the public had ever been allowed in. It was a ruin but it was grade one listed so we weren’t allowed to put a single nail in the wall. We had so much to deal with because of the site and the budget but we pulled it off. And I feel very proud of that show because it was extraordinary. On a smaller scale, at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, we can do things in this gallery that would not have been possible in a public space.

How come?

Partly because of the number of people. For example, we installed Medardo Rosso’s works very close together, in such a way that you really felt that you were entering his world. You were face to face with these objects. The intimacy of his sculptures, you really felt them. I don’t think we could have possibly done that installation in a public space because it would have put the work at risk. Of course, I do miss the days when you could go and look at a work of art and not have all the hoopla that surrounds it now — but what I find endlessly inspiring these days is the idea that anything is possible. I find it thrilling.