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Hancock Caroline, edited by Helen Luckett, Joanna Drew and the Art of Exhibitions

Milan: Skira, 2018. 192 p.
Charlotte Gould
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Hancock, Caroline, edited by Helen Luckett, Joanna Drew and the Art of Exhibitions, Milan: Skira, 2018. 192 p.

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1Caroline Hancock’s Joanna Drew and the Art of Exhibitions tells of one woman’s life and work behind the scenes to support art and artists in Britain the second half of the 20th century. The book is both the celebration of a remarkable woman and art professional, and a fascinating journey into those decades when British art and the art presented in Britain were supported and encouraged by public servants—no matter how co-opted Raymond Williams might have then considered this consensual administration to be (Williams, ‘The Arts Council’, 1979). Joanna Drew is not a name that is, for the time being, known outside of the art world, and yet she was once described as ‘the most powerful individual in the British art scene’ (Tim Hilton in The Guardian when her retirement was announced in 1992, 136). Drew (1929–2003) was the daughter of painter Sannie Drew, and of a brigadier detached to the Indian Himalayas where she was born. She was educated in Scotland and, in 1952—just after the Festival of Britain—, she joined the Arts Council as an exhibition organizer and arts administrator, working with them for nearly four decades, and acting as director of the Hayward Gallery (which opened in 1968) from 1987 until 1992 (the Arts Council had taken over the South Bank which had until then been only a concert hall). Drew was someone who worked in teams and who downplayed the power she effectively wielded by focusing on the pragmatic aspects of her job. The book sheds light on her influence and on her accomplishments, and in doing so, it fleshes out a crucial and eventful period in the history of British art when it transitioned from post-war insularity to the cosmopolitan effervescence of the 1990s. Over that time, Drew contributed to the popularisation of the temporary exhibition and to the honing of its format.

2The fact that it was only in the 1990s that exhibitions and curating started to be considered as creative practices in themselves, or even actual art forms, explains both why Drew remained such a discreet figure in her time, and also why light is now shed on her contribution. Indeed, because she had to work with the spaces she had, she had to come up with new visions for each hanging, first in the itsy-bitsy headquarters on St James Square, then at the Tate Gallery or the Royal Academy which until the 1960s hosted the Arts Council exhibitions, but also for the many touring exhibitions which were meant to bridge the cultural gap between London and the rest of the country, and finally with the touring ‘embassy exhibitions’ which she had to accommodate in the context of the Cold War. This context was also one when some forms of censorship were exerted (especially on the occasion of the presentation of East German artists, 76), while a cultural Americanization was holding sway (two exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism in 1956 and 1959 were part of a MoMA touring programme supported by the CIA, 37). Still, the blockbuster exhibition, which she played a part in inventing, was not then yet a commercial object. According to Nicholas Serota, Drew was resolutely irked by commercial art: ‘She was so close to the values of that post-war generation who really believed in the service of public institutions’ (136). While, since the end of the war, and until the 1980s, the Arts Council was the principal dispenser of public funds voted by Parliament, a shift was introduced when in 1984 its new chairman, former Times editor and father of Jacob, Sir William Rees-Mogg published a report entitled ‘The Glory of the Garden’ (a title borrowed from Rudyard Kipling) which asserted that the body would henceforward no longer shun market principles (148).

3In the 1950s and 1960s (its halcyon days), the Arts Council of Great Britain had been a tastemaker not yet encumbered by commercial dictates or by the crisis of culture the thinkers of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies would soon identify. Its aim was ‘to recivilise Britain amid the ruins of the Second World War’ (Rory Coonan, 147). It was therefore a direct descendant of the cultural vision of Matthew Arnold, hoping to spread ‘sweetness and light’ and to show the best that has been said and done. It also operated at a time of consensus about the fact that contemporary art should be supported by the State.

4Still, Drew knew that culture should be shared and enjoyed, and she had nothing against introducing one of the museum cafés and restaurants which would become all the rage later down in the century when in 1988 Saatchi&Saatchi advertised the Victoria and Albert as ‘An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’. During her time there, the Hayward did not appear so centrally positioned in the geography of London and she had her doubts about the ‘cultural ghetto’ in which she found herself on the South Bank. ‘You have to fight your way across these bleak, wind-swept, rain-driven concrete wastes and if you want a cup of tea you’ve got to put your hat and coat back on, fight your way out again and queue up at the Festival Hall. We’ve got the planners to thank for that’, she said. ‘There’s nothing there but culture which you’re supposed to consume in large dollops . . . it’s very daft’ (Telegraph obituary, 2003).

5The major role private galleries and art fairs now play on the British art scene, and the central place Margaret Thatcher’s cultural policies carved out for corporate sponsorship which following governments have since consolidated might obfuscate somewhat the degree to which the Arts Council of Great Britain dominated British artistic life from its creation immediately after World War II until the early 1990s. The fact that Joanna Drew’s career should have coincided with this remarkable period when State patronage came into existence as a direct result of post-war politics makes her ‘the continuous thread that ran through the period’ (11) according to Nicholas Serota, just one of the many young curators she mentored.

6She worked for the Arts Council almost from its inception, and believed in the central precept John Maynard Keynes and Kenneth Clark had outlined when in 1946 the Committee for The Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) was transformed into the cultural arm of the Welfare State, the Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB): that the arts are the greatest secular force for good in society, and should attract public funding. This is a period she witnessed and shaped, creating some of the most important exhibitions of that era: ‘Picasso’ at the Tate Gallery in 1960 (when it was said takings were too large to count at the end of each day), ‘Joan Miro’ in 1964 and ‘Henry Moore’ in 1968, both also at the Tate Gallery. She did not simply organise scores of exhibitions but was also a prime mover in attracting loans and exchanges with museums on the Continent, especially in France, Switzerland and Hungary.

7The book charts different key moments—and exhibitions—of Joanna Drew’s career and assembles numerous contributions from colleagues, mostly the younger generation she instructed and mentored. Joanna Drew and the Art of Exhibitions is made up of an introduction and four main chapters by Caroline Hancock. Hancock then draws on the recollections of Drew’s colleagues and friends. The book is thus prefaced by Nicholas Serota and interspersed with testimonies by Alan Bowness, artists Richard Wentworth and Bridget Riley, Lutz Becker, Dawn Ades, Catherine Lampert, Martin Caiger-Smith, Roy Strong, David Elliott, Rory Coonan, Tim Llewellyn, and Andrew Brighton. It also includes fascinating entries from her own journals which, in particular, go into the details of her visit to Picasso, whom she visited with Roland Penrose to return works the artist had loaned (it was during this stay that Picasso gifted her a drawing, The Kiss, that she hung in her apartment and which was donated to the Tate collection upon her death). She is responsible for curating—not a verb which would then have been used—more than 150 exhibitions, and for the world’s first blockbuster show: ‘Picasso’ at the Tate Gallery (seven years later Drew brought Picasso: Sculpture, Ceramics, Graphic Work to the Tate Gallery). In 1989, one year after the contentious yet seminal ‘Magiciens de la terre’ at the Pompidou in Paris, she was also behind ‘The Other Story’, the landmark survey of Asian, African and Caribbean artists in postwar Britain.

8The book charts a period which goes from Britain’s post-war insularity to the excitement but also growing commercialism of the 1990s and the difficult transition towards a demand oriented programme and towards sponsorship. All the while, it focuses on a woman who, in a male-dominated art world, contributed to shaping contemporary visual art in Great Britain post-World War II while remaining committed to public service and to public collections. The fact that the author of the book, Caroline Hancock, is also herself a curator who for a time worked at the Hayward Gallery—though only after Joanna Drew had left—is crucial to her approach. All the more touching is the fact that she was the recipient of a Joanna Drew travel bursary which was set up after her death.

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Charlotte Gould, « Hancock Caroline, edited by Helen Luckett, Joanna Drew and the Art of Exhibitions »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 59 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2020, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Charlotte Gould

Université Paris 3—Sorbonne Nouvelle

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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