Director Spotlight: Polly Staple (Chisenhale Gallery, London) on Value

“Value might not necessarily be measured by the number of people you can get in the door. It could be measured by the quality or depth of the work you are doing—in our case, supporting artists at a critical moment in their careers.”

In the decade she has led Chisenhale Gallery, Polly Staple has created a commissions program that produces four contemporary art exhibitions annually. Staple’s directorship is informed by her work with Common Practice, a London advocacy group of small and medium-size institutions, which has fostered forward-looking discussions of how to define value in the art world.

I run a nonprofit organization that receives twenty-five percent of its annual funding from a British Arts Council grant we apply for every four years. Thankfully, the Arts Council recognizes the value of experimental spaces like Chisenhale. That they do so is in part because I and my colleagues at other public institutions have done a lot of work addressing the question of value.

Value might not necessarily be measured by the number of people you can get in the door. It could be measured by the quality or depth of the work you are doing—in our case, supporting artists at a critical moment in their careers. A work we commission might subsequently be exhibited at a larger space and therefore be seen by a larger audience. So we may deliver value elsewhere.

Then, our location on a residential street in the far East End of London shapes a lot of what we do beyond commissioning pieces and presenting them in the gallery. For instance, because of budget cuts, the arts and humanities are very poorly represented in UK schools now. We work with art teachers in our borough, which is still one of the most underserved in the UK, to bolster their arts curriculums.

One of our projects, which has been quite successful, is our Creative Careers Day, a conference we organize biannually with local schools. We engage artists, designers, architects, and filmmakers—a whole range of creative practitioners—and ask each of them to give a ten-minute talk about what they do to teenagers who are figuring out their career path. Because of who we have access to, we’ve been able to get brilliant people as presenters.

Another forty-five percent of our funding now comes from individual donors, and here you come up against another system of value. I believe that if you are doing relevant, surprising, and interesting work, you will find people to fund it—the ones who don’t just want to buy a trophy artwork, but want to support an ethos and a community.

One of the questions I always ask myself is, how do you remain relevant? Having spent over ten years in one institution, I’ve learned that every three years or so you need to refresh what you’re doing.

Chisenhale has a fantastic history. When I was a student in the 1990s, that’s where I went to see shows of work by a whole roll call of YBAs, people like Wolfgang Tillmans and Rachel Whiteread, making some of their first exhibitions. But in 2008 when I was appointed director, the whole organization needed a reboot. And that was everything from addressing how it would sustain itself—we could already see that there were going to be cuts to public funding—to things like reappointing the board, reconfiguring the staff structure, redoing our graphic identity, and overhauling the website.

And also, obviously, reanimating the program and shifting the focus to commissioning new pieces. This is a particular way of working with artists—as a producer, funder, editor, and critical friend—that results in some remarkable things happening. We’ve also been interested in experimenting with modes of curatorial practice by commissioning performance works that operate outside traditional time frames, say, or developing discursive and online formats.

About two years in, I remember, people started to quote the program back at me, and I thought, “OK, this is working. It’s having resonance.” Then you need to transform yourself again. People very quickly get a fixed idea of what you do, and I like to play with those expectations, to move the goal posts a bit at a time—that’s a pleasure, curatorially speaking.

For instance, we now theme each year’s program, and next year, we will be focusing on the environment—not just in the ecological sense, but in the sociocultural sense as well. In January, we’re presenting a film commission by Imran Perretta, developed through conversations with young British Muslims living in our borough of Tower Hamlets, home to the largest population of Bangladeshi Muslims outside of South Asia. Imran reflects on the pressures on these young people forming an identity in a society that sees their bodies as a threat. That’s one way of thinking about the subject, how our social environment can directly impact the body. In April, the Chinese artist Yu Ji, who is from Shanghai, will be presenting an exhibition generated in part from her experience living in London at the moment on a residency we have facilitated for her. Yu Ji is interested in connections between the rapid development of Shanghai and the urban renewal in London’s East End.

Looking ahead, we are developing how we address “research” at Chisenhale Gallery; this encompasses a wide range of activities and is informed by the institution’s now 37-year history and the gallery’s current commissioning process. Identifying new forms of artistic practice is central to our research, obviously. Through collaborative initiatives such as the program How to Work Together, we co-produced dedicated research working with practitioners in other fields, and we’d like to build on that initiative. Chisenhale Gallery’s online archive dating back to 1986 is also a significant public resource; there were some very interesting and important shows at Chisenhale 30 years ago. I’d like to draw out that history, especially as it relates to questions artists might be addressing now.

I’m always rethinking the program, and how we might address important issues, whether it’s the environment, the politics of care, or new technologies, and how we can be a place where people see art as a way to engage with our present moment. Then there are the small “p” politics of the institution. Who is your board of trustees? How do you treat your staff? How do you treat the artists that you work with?

Lawrence Abu Hamdan made an exhibition with us last fall that has been shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize. Now that’s a great narrative both for the gallery and for Lawrence. But for the past year I’ve also been working behind the scenes with the team and trustees on rewriting the gallery’s ethics policy, and that is an equally great achievement. What enables us to make these wonderful exhibitions happen? It’s a whole organizational structure that is supporting the artist and has brought that artist’s work to the attention of the public in an interesting way. So how does that institution operate?

And beyond that, what part does Chisenhale play in the art world ecology? There are spaces all over the world like Chisenhale, and they have a very important role based on experimentation and supporting those who can bring new perspectives to bear on the world. Art galleries and public institutions such as these are places in which it is possible to ask questions and debate outside the bounds of market-driven imperatives. The activity they produce is itself producing a form of knowledge: a network of relations and community of ideas.

I’m currently thinking a lot about institution building as community building, reflecting on the role of art institutions like Chisenhale and the networks of which it is part. What kinds of spaces do these institutions create, and who are they responsible for? To whom does the institution belong, to whom do they give a platform, and which voices are being excluded? To what notions of the collective or individual body do these institutions cater?

Also, crucially, how can these institutions continue to survive? That is a huge challenge. How can we raise funds for our projects? How can we be free to support artists making experimental and sometimes difficult work? And how do you retain an idea of public investment in these conservative times?

What you learn when you’ve done this long enough is that there are always hurdles. I remember when there were massive Arts Council funding cuts in the UK around 2012; it was as if the world had ended. I’m not saying our present moment isn’t daunting, but that every moment has its particular exigencies. Right now, the global imaginary is challenging. But I believe that through your relationship with your audience, and with the people you work with, you can have an impact. Or maybe inspire someone to think differently about the world.