Courtney Willis Blair Is Guiding White Cube New York to New Heights

Art Market

Maxwell Rabb

Portrait of Courtney Willis Blair. Photo by Evon Gardner. Courtesy of White Cube.

“Often artists are surprised to learn that I don’t hold a master’s degree in art history, but in many ways, they have been my master’s education,” said Courtney Willis Blair, White Cube’s U.S. senior director. Indeed, if artists are analogous to a master’s education, perhaps the mega-gallery represents something of an institution.

Founded by Jay Jopling in 1993 amid London’s YBA-powered art world explosion (early shows featured such names as Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst, and Tracey Emin), White Cube is now among the world’s leading contemporary art galleries. Today it represents more than 50 artists and operates branches in seven locations: two spaces in London, as well as outposts in Hong Kong, Paris, West Palm Beach, Seoul, and, since October 2023, New York. The long-awaited New York space spans 8,000 square feet over three floors in a 1930s former bank building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Antony Gormley, BIG SIDLE, 2023. Photo by Stephen White & Co. © the artist. Courtesy of White Cube.

In many ways, Willis Blair—who took up the position last January—is an ideal fit for a gallery that has carved a formidable reputation for combining established blue-chip heavyweights with a forward-looking approach to programming and emerging artists. She joined the gallery after an influential tenure at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, where she bolstered the gallery’s institutional engagement, working on a project with the São Paulo Bienal and the Whitney Museum of American Art to propel the gallery’s artist roster into canonical levels of recognition.

Today, Willis Blair leads White Cube’s New York team, shaping its curatorial program and brand direction across the U.S. and sitting on its board of directors. She curated the gallery’s acclaimed opening show in October 2023, “Chopped & Screwed,” which represents her propensity to approach curation as a way to challenge the status quo and spark conversations on topics spanning history, politics, race, culture, and more. It featured a slate of standout works from artists including Mark Bradford, David Hammons, Julie Mehretu, Adrian Piper, Ilana Savdie, and Danh Vō, among 13 others. “It really considers this practice and methodology of sourcing, distorting, [and] experimenting that you see artists take on today as a way to subvert systems of power and also reimagine the world,” Willis Blair said of the show at the opening.

Exterior view of White Cube New York. Photo by Nicholas Venezia. © White Cube. Courtesy of White Cube.

Willis Blair’s curatorial approach is framed by an openness to the unknown, driven by an ingrained curiosity and drive to learn. “Every day you sharpen your knife and hone your skills—the propositions I want to put into the world are in a constant state of change and always becoming more precise,” she said.

Willis Blair’s passion for art ignited early, and was underpinned by foundational experiences in museums during high school. Her tenure at the Amistad Foundation at the Wadsworth Atheneum—an initiative launched to correct the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of African American culture—under the guidance of then–executive director Olivia White provided her with invaluable exposure to the practices of living and working within an institutional context.

“Olivia is someone who believes in relationships and community and was always very generous with who she introduced me to and made connections with, which allowed me to establish a foundation within art,” said Willis Blair. “What I knew to be true was reinforced: that artists are always making and in discourse with one another regardless of who’s paying attention or not; some do, but these things are happening irrespective of an institutional platform.”

Richard Hunt, installation view of “Early Masterworks” at White Cube New York, 2024. © 2024 The Richard Hunt Trust / ARS, NY and DACS, London. Photo © White Cube. Courtesy of White Cube.

Her art world career formally began in 2012 at Mary Ryan Gallery, where she started as a sales associate, also cultivating an arts journalism career, where she profiled the likes of Dineo Seshee Bopape and Eddie Martinez for outlets including Forbes and Cultured. By 2020, she had scaled the ranks from artist liaison to the role of senior director of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, where she became renowned for championing young, rigorous artists with strong points of view. During her time, she brought on several key artists, including Jacolby Satterwhite and Gideon Appah. Her influence grew as she founded Entre Nous in 2016, an international organization of Black women who work in the art world that fosters connections and community.

One major milestone during her time at Mitchell-Innes & Nash was her work with the gallery’s represented artist Pope L., whom she helped realize his “Instigation, Aspiration, Perspiration” exhibition series, a trio of complementary shows in 2019 at MoMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Public Art Fund. The series focused on a vast array of subjects, including music, literature, political history, New York history, and artists involved in durational practices: from historical movements like Fluxus to contemporary influences of Pope L., such as Fluxus artist John Cage. For Willis Blair, this experience resonates with a predisposition to soak up as much knowledge as possible from the artist. Meanwhile, it also aligns with White Cube’s mission to “[make] the contemporary historic and the historic contemporary,” as the gallery’s senior director Mathieu Paris has said.

Tracey Emin, installation view of “Lovers Grave” at White Cube New York, 2023. © the artist, photo © White Cube. Courtesy of White Cube.

And it’s this mission brought to life that visitors can expect from White Cube New York. The gallery is currently staging a high-profile exhibition by Antony Gormley, who had his first show with the gallery back in 1994. The monumental site-specific show “Aerial” opens on April 30th and features Gormley’s exploration of space using massive, site-responsive sculptures that challenge and engage the viewer’s perception of their environment. It’s the latest in a series of high-profile solo exhibitions from Tracey Emin, Theaster Gates, and Richard Hunt. Hunt passed away only weeks after White Cube announced its representation late last year.

“Both New Yorkers familiar with [Gormley’s] public art projects at Madison Square Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park and visitors flocking to the city for Frieze Week will have the opportunity to explore and interact with [his] work, including a site-specific installation in an intimate setting,” said Willis Blair of the show. “The presentation highlights recent developments in his practice and a juxtaposition between work that explores mass and scale and that which explores space and air.”

Theaster Gates, installation view of “Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me,” at White Cube New York, 2024. © Theaster Gates. Photo © White Cube. Courtesy of White Cube.

This exhibition coincides with a packed fortnight of fairs and art world activity, marking the first major international art gathering in New York since the White Cube opened its Big Apple branch. The gallery will also participate in two fairs in the city—TEFAF and Frieze—making this something of a New York moment for the gallery.

Down the line, a dynamic series of solo exhibitions is set to continue. Immediately after Gormley’s solo exhibition, the gallery will present work from Japanese painter Yoko Matsumoto. Later in the 2024–25 season, White Cube will present work from Ghanaian installation artist and sculptor Ibrahim Mahama and the late South Korean painter Park Seo-bo.

“This is such an exciting time,” said Willis Blair. “The gallery opened to a fantastic response a mere [six] months ago, and we couldn’t be happier with the foundation we’ve set to move into this next chapter of White Cube.”

Maxwell Rabb

Maxwell Rabb is Artsy’s Staff Writer.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the details of Courtney Willis Blair’s job history and the Antony Gormley exhibition.

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