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What next for the Serpentine?

20 November 2015

Julia Peyton-Jones, who announced recently that she is to step down from her position as co-director of the Serpentine Galleries in London after 25 years, leaves behind a radically different institution to the one she inherited in 1991. She oversaw renovations in 1998, and an expansion to a second site, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in 2013. In 2000 she established the Serpentine Pavilions, a programme that has commissioned significant architectural figures such as Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Oscar Niemeyer and Daniel Libeskind, often providing them with their first opportunity to build in the UK. Visitor footfall to the galleries has increased from 250,000 to 1.2 million a year during her directorship. The gallery stands to lose an important figurehead.

This is an interesting moment for many of London’s larger cultural organisations. The British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and National Gallery have all recently acquired new directors, and Tate Modern’s Chris Dercon will leave in 2017. The cultural landscape is shifting, and at a moment of extensive funding pressures, the Serpentine has become a beacon for public and commercial partnerships. A quick Google image search for Peyton-Jones brings up an abundance of photographs her hobnobbing with movie stars, royals and members of the cultural aristocracy. Under her tenure the Serpentine Galleries have become almost as famous for glitzy fundraisers as for championing of the international avant-garde.

But while Peyton-Jones’ achievements have been numerous in this regard, one has to see them in the context of Serpentine’s location in one of the richest boroughs in London – not all organisations have the benefit of having so many would-be patrons on their doorstep. More impressive is how she, alongside her co-director of the 10 years, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, has extended the programming remit of Serpentine Galleries to incorporate off-site events, digital commissioning, exemplary education projects and the annual talks Marathon. The Marathons in particular have positioned the institution as a kind of cultural laboratory in the park, acting at the intersection between critical theory, design, architecture and art.

This ultimately, I think, has been Peyton-Jones’ greatest achievement; balancing increased expectations and visitor numbers, while maintaining curatorial rigour. Obvious crowd-pleasing exhibitions (Marina Abramovic, Jeff Koons, Duane Hanson) have been countered by fantastic presentations of the work of Gustav Metzger, Maria Lassnig, Marisa Merz, Leon Golub and Jonas Mekas among others. The question turns to who will replace Peyton-Jones. They’ll be difficult shoes to fill, but one hopes that – to use Peyton-Jones and Obrist’s often-quoted motto – they’ll continue to ‘think the unthinkable’.