What was it like joining the V&A from the Smithsonian?
It’s been a strange time to begin a new role in the arts. These are unusually challenging times in which we have probably all felt the vulnerability of the creative industries and also appreciated their strength. We’ve witnessed the unique power of the arts and we’ve seen the importance of culture in pulling us together and offering catharsis and inspiration. In my memory, the arts have never felt more critical, more important, more useful or more contested.
What are the key aims for V&A East?
Henry Cole, the founder of the V&A, wanted his museum to be radical. He wanted it to be a force for transformation and he wanted it to offer the kinds of tools that would meaningfully change ordinary lives. We want to recast that vision for the 21st century. We want to put young people, opportunity and creativity in all its forms at the very heart of what we do at V&A East.
We want to build two open and inclusive creative spaces engineered to attract young, diverse audiences, remaking these aspirations for the digitally native and for our rapidly changing arts sector. We want to craft a new kind of creative institution for London, for the UK and the world, with local residents, young people and global makers and collaborators at the heart of our proposition.
Gus Casely-Hayford joined the V&A in spring 2020 from the Smithsonian in the US where he was the director of the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. He is a fellow of the Cultural Institute at King’s College London, an honorary fellow of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies and a Clore Fellow.
He has also sat on the boards of many arts and heritage institutions, including the National Trust, the Caine Prize for African Writing and London’s National Portrait Gallery. Casely-Hayford has advised organisations from the Tate to the Royal Shakespeare Company and consulted on numerous exhibitions and creative projects.
He is also a writer and broadcaster with several presenting credits for BBC, Sky Arts and Channel 4. In 2017 he gave a TED Talk called The Powerful Stories that Shaped Africa and in 2018 he was given an OBE for services to arts and culture.
What will visitors see at V&A East?
We want to platform the kinds of creative excellence that will shift the canon to celebrate the work that truly demonstrates the dynamism and complexity of global creativity and showcases excellence from wherever it comes. Alongside this we will celebrate east London’s unique artistic scene, highlighting the youth and the ingenuity of the area and will co-produce work in partnership with communities of interest and experience.
It will not just be one institutional view that you’ll hear at V&A East but the perspectives of many, from global and local artists and makers to activists and schoolchildren. We’ll celebrate the creative visionaries and the extraordinary makers of the past and present through a contemporary and forward-looking programme that platforms artists and designers and creatives who are shaping today’s cultural conversations.
And we’ll support the creation of new work. V&A East will act as a catalyst for new ideas. It will interrogate and reflect the most pressing debates in society, from the climate emergency to social justice and wellbeing. It will look to create a sense of wonder and occasionally a call to action, but always, always, striving to instil a sense of hope and empowerment in our visitors. An international dialogue is going to be critical and we’re building networks and partnerships with artists, communities, collectives and museums that will enable our visitors to travel the world through our collections and through our programme.
How have you been researching the project?
I’ve spent a lot of this last year cycling through the four boroughs that surround us – Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Waltham Forest – not just to rediscover the area’s compelling demographic complexity, its artists and its digital and creative enterprises, but also to discover something of the heritage of this part of London.
This is an utterly fascinating, thrilling and incredible area. Long before the artist Yinka Shonibare and designer Molly Goddard set up their studios here, before Alexander McQueen came here to study fashion, before photographer David Bailey was born here and even before Charles Dickens came here for creative inspiration, east London was a place of makers, of immigrants, of artists and of shifting populations.
Have you been acquiring new material for V&A East?
We are acquiring works by artists and designers who are under-represented in our collection, work that speaks to our values and that shines a light on the creativity of designers and makers working in and around east London. These include a portrait of Melissa Thompson by Nigerian-American artist Kehinde Wiley. This was made as part of the artist’s yellow wallpaper series for his exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow last year.
Thompson was cast in Ridley Road Market in Dalston and here, Wiley depicts her against the floral motif inspired by the work of artist and designer Morris, who has deep connections to the V&A. Wiley’s approach to painting exquisitely subverts the visual conventions of historic European and American portraiture traditions that, as we all know, are associated with power and privilege.
Wiley’s subjects, often African-American and African diasporic men and women, are the people that he predominantly encounters on the streets in cities around the world and they raise important questions about race, identity and the politics of representation, making it in my mind a vitally important first acquisition for V&A East.
V&A East comprises the museum, which will open in 2025, and the Storehouse, which will open in 2024. The Storehouse will offer visitors a behind-the-scenes experience of the vast V&A collections, immersing the public in a side of the museum they won’t have seen before.
The V&A East Museum will celebrate global creativity and making. Both sites are part of East Bank, the Mayor of London’s £1.1bn Olympic legacy project, which will create a new arts, innovation and education hub in Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.