The art world's highs and lows of 2017

Curators, museum directors and artists respond to the year's events

The Louvre Abu Dhabi was a recurring highlight of the year, Trump's presidency a recurring lowlight David Clack (L), Wikimedia Commons (R)

The Louvre Abu Dhabi was a recurring highlight of the year, Trump's presidency a recurring lowlight David Clack (L), Wikimedia Commons (R)

Omar Kholeif

Senior curator and director of global initiatives, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

One of my highs this year was being able to help celebrate the MCA Chicago’s 50th anniversary, working as part of a team of more than 100 people, to showcase what it means for a contemporary art museum to be truly global today through the production of a suite of exhibitions and a whole weekend of programmed activity. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life seeing all of the museum’s communities throughout time come together. Seeing the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi is a personal feat because we have been waiting to see this kind of cultural activity in the Gulf for a decade now, and my hope is that it continues to pave the way for many more museums in the Arab world, which we are urgently in need of so as to contextualise local histories globally. My favourite exhibitions this year included the surprising Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition, Boom for Real, at the Barbican, an astonishing show by Liliana Porter at the SCAD Museum in Savannah, Georgia, which quite simply took my breath away, and Trevor Paglen’s phenomenal solo at Metro Pictures [in New York]. My low this year was seeing the continued destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East. We need to create new forms of culture as a form of resistance.

We need to create new forms of culture as a form of resistance
Omar Kholeif

Victoria Siddall

Director, Frieze Art Fairs

The year began with women marching all over the world for liberty and equality. I was part of the London march and it was an inspiring start to the year, even though the circumstances that brought it about were of grave concern. This seems even more poignant now, given the accounts of sexual abuse and discrimination that have come to light in recent months. Reading about these has been dispiriting but hopefully this will lead to positive change. A high point has been Maria Balshaw taking over at the Tate; she is a great leader and it is also significant as she is the first female director of a museum on that scale. The Tate also provided one of my favourite shows of the year, Soul of a Nation. Finally, Frieze Sculpture opened in the summer for the first time in 2017; seeing thousands of people discover this free exhibition was a great reminder of the power of public art.

Greg Hilty

Curatorial Director, Lisson Gallery

Faced with global aggression and despair in 2017, culture seems more important than ever. This year has, for myself and the gallery, been about engaging the wider public further with thought-provoking art that can bring people together, illuminating the joy, struggle, humour and spirituality of life through the eyes of artists. In my job, I've been fortunate to encounter many other people doing the same. This year, Lisson Gallery's collaboration with The Vinyl Factory, Everything at Once at The Store Studios, was presented alongside four powerful new Vinyl Factory commissions. Of these, the most memorable was Arthur Jafa who followed up his summer London debut at the Serpentine with Love is the Message, the Message is Death—a searing synthesis of the joy and pain of the African-American experience. Around the same time in Istanbul—where I supported the opening of Ai Weiwei's intense dialogue between Chinese porcelain and Islamic ceramics at the Sakip Sabanci Museum—I saw the beautifully thoughtful Istanbul Biennial curated by Elmgreen and Dragset. In one venue alone, The Greek School, artists as diverse in culture, discipline and medium as Erkan Özgen, Andrea Joyce Heimer and Pedro Gómez-Egaña showed us how to confront our inner and outer demons with honesty, grace and poetry.

Clare Lilley

Director of programme, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

It’s hard not to view the year in the shadow of last year’s US presidential election and the UK referendum vote, as well as recent developments in North Korea and the ongoing plight of refugees across our globe. That said, I regularly encounter kindness and compassion—just now in our restaurant, I witnessed a group of young refugee men from Africa with their hosts, eating and knitting; the sense of goodwill towards them from other visitors was palpable. Hull has succeeded beautifully as the UK City of Culture, linking many across and beyond the city, while the appointment of Maria Balshaw as the director of Tate made me very happy; together with Frances Morris, it is wonderful to have these two women in such important cultural positions, both of them acutely committed to excellence and to reaching out to diverse audiences. In Venice, Kassel and Münster I was uplifted by exceptional works by John Smith, Amar Kanwar and Pierre Huyghe respectively. My highest personal art point was attending Sunday mass in the Matisse chapel in Vence. Matisse bestowed indescribable qualities on the chapel, but the welcome given by the priest and congregation to me and a young man from Cameroon left me breathless, reinforcing my sense of the role our cultural institutions must play in helping to bind and strengthen our communities.

Hull has succeeded beautifully as the UK City of Culture
Clare Lilley

Myrna Ayad

Director, Art Dubai

The high is the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi—truly a game-changer locally, regionally and internationally. Another high is Art Dubai’s largest and most globally diverse edition to date with 94 galleries from 43 countries. We were delighted with the announcement of Art Jameel and it was wonderful to see another regional modernist, Fahrelnissa Zeid, celebrated at the Tate with a retrospective; the same gallery showed the work of Kaveh Golestan, a renowned Iranian photojournalist, who documented Iran’s sex workers in the 1970s. On the low is the continuing conflict in the region—Syria, Yemen, Iraq and the increasing volatility in other countries in the Middle East. The art world lost greats: Martin Roth, Hashim Al Madani, Lala Rukh and Linda Nochlin.

Jenny Holzer


The worst is the presidency of Donald Trump. Come on, art world, do what’s right now. The best is the Louvre Abu Dhabi dome of Jean Nouvel, and my glimpse of a little work in lead by Louise Bourgeois: Mr. No Thank You.

Alex Farquharson

Director, Tate Britain

A lot of drama in the world has been a consequence of Trump’s first year in office: the emboldening of the far right and the US’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement among 2017’s lows. In Britain we were shaken by terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, and by the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, where victims included the young artist Khadija Saye. At the same time this year’s highs were, to varying degrees, responses to these events: the extraordinary Women’s March, the timely re-emergence of the youth vote in Britain, and the sense of solidarity across social divides that arose post-Grenfell. While more overt racism, sadly, seems to have been one of the consequences of both Brexit and the Trump election, 2017 was an amazing year for black art and culture on both sides of the Atlantic, from the triumph of Stormzy and UK Grime, to Edward Enninful’s socially engaged first issue of British Vogue, the movie Get Out, and several of this year’s most beautiful and memorable exhibitions: Frank Bowling at Haus der Kunst, Munich, Kerry James Marshall in New York and Los Angeles, Lubaina Himid in Bristol and Oxford, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at the New Museum, New York, Basquiat at the Barbican, The Place is Here at Nottingham Contemporary, Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern, and Blue Black in St Louis. Returning to the theme of the planet, John Akomfrah’s Purple was an appropriately epic and elegiac chronicle of the Anthropocene and our urgent need to exit it.

2017 was an amazing year for black art and culture
Alex Farquharson

Sam Thorne

Director, Nottingham Contemporary

A handful of my exhibition highlights from 2017 would include: Bruce Conner’s stunning retrospective at the Reina Sofía in Madrid; Postwar at the Haus der Kunst in Munich; Disobedient Bodies at Hepworth Wakefield and Rebecca Warren at the newly expanded Tate St Ives; Arthur Jafa’s work coming to the UK for the first time, at the Serpentine; Anna Boghiguian’s first major survey, at Castello di Rivoli in Turin; Remko Scha at TG in Nottingham; Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern; and, finally, it was a privilege to work with Lubaina Himid on her touring exhibition.

Martin Clark

Director, Camden Arts Centre, London

I’m going to try to stick to the art in a year which has seen terrible events both at home and abroad, not least Grenfell, which defined so much of what is wrong in the UK at the moment. A highlight toward the end of the year was the opening of Jamie Fobert’s beautiful extension to Tate St lves, transforming not just the building but also the experience of the collection there. Documenta 14 Athens was fantastic, Moyra Davey and Vivien Suter being my picks of the bunch, while James Richards was the standout for me at Venice. And then there was Moor Mother—poet, musician, activist and artist—who delivered a ferocious set at Bergen Kunsthall during the Borealis festival, channelling rage, energy, anger and enlightenment in equal measure… exactly what we need right now: Black Quantum Futurism.

Tristram Hunt

Director, Victoria and Albert Museum

Joining the V&A was my first highlight! 2017 has been a seminal year for the museum. A record-breaking number of visitors have come through our doors, and we were crowned TripAdvisor Museum of the Year for the UK. There have been transformative developments across South Kensington. Our neighbours at the Natural History Museum introduced Hope the blue whale to their newly renovated Hintze Hall, and we’ve seen how our new Amanda Levete-designed V&A Exhibition Road Quarter has offered fresh insights into our historic building with pioneering new architecture.

The success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains and our immersive Opera: Passion, Power and Politics have consolidated the V&A as a cultural leader in innovative performance. And we launched DesignLab Nation, our ambitious education programme for 11 to 16-year-olds that is helping to revive art and design education in secondary schools across the UK.

However, this has also been a time of great sadness with the death of our former director, Martin Roth. During his tenure, the V&A became more international, reflecting his belief in the benefits of expanding culture. Following Martin’s strong lead, the V&A Gallery at Design Society in Shekou, Shenzhen, will officially open in December as our first international space.

The V&A was crowned TripAdvisor Museum of the Year for the UK
Tristram Hunt

Yana Peel

Chief executive, Serpentine Galleries

A personal highlight was the opening of our dear friend Amanda Levete’s visionary extension for the V&A, even as we mourned the untimely death of its former director Martin Roth. In a year that tested Londoners, the optimism of AL_A’s architecture sends a powerful message. I loved seeing Michael Bloomberg and Sadiq Khan forge a friendship in Francis Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion while celebrating with Grayson Perry a London that is open, outward-looking and inclusive.

In New York, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Carol Rama made for a powerful combination at the New Museum, while Ian Cheng’s Emissaries series was vital viewing at MoMA PS1. The aptly titled Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future was unmissable at Tate. Alejandro González Iñárritu at Fondazione Prada evoked the most emotional experience I have ever felt with digital art.

In Venice, Phyllida Barlow’s British Pavilion was a triumph. The Lisson Gallery’s 50th anniversary show, Everything At Once, has been a deserved hit at The Store for the Vinyl Factory, with who we also teamed up to show Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death in a tent on the roof.