Strategies of Balancing Ambition and Resources

Erin Li

Curatorial Fellow 2022
Whitechapel Gallery, London

As I walk out of Aldgate East station, the broadcast announcement goes again, 'due to the lack of staff, Exit 3 and 4 are currently closed. Please use the exits on the other end of the platform.' It is a daily reminder of the recent reality of significant recession, inflations and endless public service strikes in London.

Right above the station, Whitechapel Gallery cannot exist outside this sociopolitical climate. In November 2022, Arts Council England announced that among many other arts and culture institutions in London, Whitechapel Gallery received a 6.5% cut of funding for 2023–26, which translates into 300,000 pounds. Amid the challenging prospects, we continued to work on ‘Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70’, the most ambitious exhibition I have worked on to date. This opportunity was also precious in the sense that although I have organized dozens of contemporary art projects, never have I been so closely involved in the curation of a post-war exhibition where most artists have passed way. I learnt again that curating, similar to many major societal activities, is essentially an art of balancing ambition and resources.

With the aim of challenging the art canon of Abstract Expressionism as a US-centred movement led by macho male artists, this exhibition was four years in the making. I was extremely lucky to join the project team 8 months before the opening and to work closely with the lead curator Laura Smith and assistant curator Candy Stobbs.


Together with a passionate international advisory board, we had rigorous monthly discussions. The major task of the team when I joined was to tighten up the selection and close the work list. We wanted to showcase a wide range of global experiments in gestural abstraction by women artists from 1940 to 1970, so it felt necessary to include the best artist(s) from every major geographical region where a relevant trend could be found, be it Informalismo in Latin America, Art Informel in South Korea, or Gutai in Japan. However, both the project budget and exhibition space is extremely tight. With huge volume of shipping also comes environmental concerns.

The team developed a few strategies at an early stage: securing two more touring partners in Europe to share the exhibition costs and research workload, as well as to maximize the exposure of the exhibition; prioritizing artworks already in Europe or the US where bulk shipments will be made; debating and screening the long list vigorously to examine that on top of being an impressive work, whether each work fits into the theme for having a solid gestural rather than geometric quality. The result was a pool of 160 paintings by 82 artists from over 30 countries, from which each touring venue will choose according to their own architectural and curatorial specifics. I noticed similar strategies are also being exercised widely in other contemporary art institutions in Europe. When resources are scarce, several institutions would team up to co-commission and tour a new work, so that the commissioned artist can still receive a fair amount of fee and other kinds of support.

Gathering of the curatorial team, some members of the international advisory board and touring partners at Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles in France. Image courtesy of Erin Li


Once the artwork list was finalized, we started taking a closer look at each artist’s life, who were also finding ways to expand their ambitions against limited support. I was tasked with writing over 20 artist biographies for the catalogue. The fact that many of those artists are not widely written about yet, at least not in English, says a lot about the very reason such an exhibition HAS to be made — although many women artists pioneered in gestural abstraction, they have not received the level of recognition they deserved in art history. As renowned art historian Griselda Pollock pointed out in the preface of the catalogue, 'the mythologising of some men as the exemplary geniuses of art has paralleled, in the twentieth century, the process of effacing almost all women from even being imagined as artists.'[1]

Some artists used kitchen counter or bedroom as their art studio and painted on whatever material they could get hold of, which meant that many smaller works were made. In view of this, we dedicated one dimmer gallery in the exhibition to smaller and more intimate works. Some artists traveled over land and sea in search of a more supportive environment, opening themselves to new influences and new communities. The fact that many of them travelled to, studied in, or even migrated to other countries also presented the challenge that many decades later, we cannot simply label their cultural and political affinities by combining their birthplace and deathplace through a hyphen. For instance, Bernice Bing was born to Chinese parents but raised in various Caucasian foster homes and an orphanage after her mother died in 1941. With both BFA and MFA degrees from the California School of Fine Arts, she was very active in the Bay Area painters’ circle. She also travelled extensively throughout her life, including visiting Korea, Japan, and China to study traditional Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. In this case, I found it not entirely convincing to label Bing a ‘Chinese-American’ artist. It is instead much more interesting to highlight the multitude of influences she sought and the bold artistic space she carved out.

Installation view of Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70. Image courtesy of Erin Li


In contrast to my previous contemporary art projects where the floorplan is hardly susceptible to major changes once the walls are built, many key hanging decisions with this large-scale painting exhibition were made after the artworks were unpacked. Photos and dimensions of an artwork could be so deceptive that the whole curatorial team started scratching our heads at the sight of the actual work. 'Why is it so big?!' 'Oh, the colors are so much pinker than the photos!' 'This wall ends up looking too crowded. Let’s move it to that wall as it would also look nice next to that work.' After daily brainstorming of rearranging the display to adjust to the new reality, we had to sometimes make the tough decision to give up certain artworks as we simply cannot fit them anymore or that their quality upon closer inspection in person does not live up to the standard. Even considerations related to barrier and wall text placement could end up forcing us to alter the hanging plan. 'Well, that’s the reality of curating', says the Gallery Technical Manager Alejandro Ball.

Assistant curator Inês Costa checking the condition of Vessel by Helen Frankenthaler. Image courtesy of Erin Li

The main curatorial team giving a staff tour of the exhibition. Image courtesy of Erin Li

Walking out of the exhibition opening, I was still savoring the various comments from guests. Some called the exhibition overhung, while others appreciated the range and depth of artworks on display. Thanks to the fellowship, I feel inspired to further this dance of balancing aspiration and limitations.

[1] See Pollock, Griselda. 'Between a Rock and Hard Place', Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70, London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2023.