Bettina Korek has long been a champion of contemporary art. Having established Frieze Los Angeles, she moved to London to head up Serpentine in 2020. An innovative arts programme followed, not least with two new exhibitions and the unveiling of the 22nd edition of the Serpentine Pavilion this summer. Here, in an exclusive interview with The Glossary, Bettina talks collaboration, connectivity and why culture in the capital is thriving.
Bettina Korek is an art world powerhouse. For almost two decades the cultural innovator was a key fixture on the LA scene, not least setting up Frieze Los Angeles in 2019, before embarking on a new adventure in London to take on the auspicious role of CEO of the Serpentine. ‘It was so wild. I arrived in March 2020, just as the country went into lockdown,’ she tells me via video chat. Though she looks composed in her fail-safe all-black wardrobe, she is full of the warmth and friendliness typical of a Californian native, opening with a gracious ‘thank you for having me’.
She recalls those first days in the new job at Serpentine, when she was staying with friends while searching for a more permanent base, and her only respite from remote working was a wander around the empty city. ‘It was a challenging time, and people asked me if I was going to move back [to LA], but I said of course not,’ she explains. ‘I have always loved the Serpentine because it has been at the forefront of artistic innovation. It informed my own ethos of collaboration, and I believe in building on the incredible legacy and helping it adapt to a changing context.’
The Serpentine are certainly a unique institution. Set amongst the bucolic surroundings of Kensington Gardens, the two main exhibition sites are housed within stunning heritage buildings. The original South gallery has been showcasing the best in contemporary art for 50 years, while the more recent North gallery is augmented by a spectacular restaurant extension by Zaha Hadid, and a public art mural by the late Ghanaian painter Atta Kwami.
‘It is a wonderful campus,’ says Korek, who now lives close to the Gardens, and enjoys her daily stroll to the galleries. ‘It’s an interesting contrast to me how in Los Angeles the natural world abuts urbanity, and in London the city is built around the parks,’ she adds. The flow of park-goers and art lovers within the Serpentine is a wonderful thing for her to witness, especially with the annual Pavilion commission creating a dedicated outdoor space, which brings art beyond the gallery walls.
Each iteration is produced by an innovative architect and is designed for visitors to take pause, or engage in the expansive series of talks, performances and workshops programmed every summer. ‘I know what it takes to produce each of those pavilions,’ she says, ‘and each one is an absolute miracle.’
The 22nd edition, unveiled in June and open until 29 October, was conceived by Lina Ghotmeh. The Lebanese-born, Paris-based architect has created a circular structure from predominantly bio-sourced and low carbon materials to reflect the natural surroundings of the park. While the exterior comprises panels laser-cut with leaflike patterns, inside a modular table has been built around the perimeter.
‘The title A table is a French call to gather at the table for a meal and the Pavilion was very much inspired by Lina’s Mediterranean heritage, inviting people to convene and celebrate,’ explains Korek. ‘During the day, visitors come and work, share a meal or hang out. Lina’s intention of encouraging new relationships to evolve and form is becoming a reality.’
The purpose of the structure certainly came into play for this year’s return of the famous Serpentine Summer Party fundraiser. Co-hosted by Korek (along with Serpentine Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist and Michael R. Bloomberg), the evening saw luminaries from the worlds of art, fashion, music, film, sports and business – from Lord Norman Foster and Anna Wintour to Yinka Shonibare, Venus Williams and Diane Kruger – gather at the Pavilion to admire Ghotmeh’s work. ‘It really lent itself to the party, it has this incredible energy,’ smiles Korek.
Ghotmeh herself creatively directed the evening with a tailored programme including a performance by the Aga Khan Master Musicians, with music inspired by the cultural heritage of the Middle East. The architect also provided a specially painted backdrop where guests – many dressed by up-and-coming British designers – could have their photo taken.
Guests at The Summer Party enjoyed a glass of R de Ruinart from the oldest champagne house and patron of contemporary art and were treated to a film screening of Tomás Saraceno’s Aerocene. A commission, originally part of Ruinart’s COUNTDOWN series, born out of a shared concern about change and highlighting the climate emergency.
Even when co-hosting glittering events like the Summer Party, work never stops for Korek, and when she’s not at Serpentine, or travelling the world to attend fairs, conferences, biennales and blockbuster exhibitions, she visits galleries and artists closer to home. She is, she says, excited about the forthcoming Turner Prize exhibition in September at Towner Eastbourne. Not least because finalist Rory Pilgrim has been nominated for their three-year Serpentine Civic project RAFTS, ‘a film, performance and soundscape work that considers how the climate crisis relates to support structures in our everyday lives, narrated by residents of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.’
One of her favourite shows this year was David Hockney’s exhibition at Lightroom, a venue in King’s Cross that offers an artist-led programme that focuses on immersive experiences. The show featured immense projections of Hockney’s paintings and iPad drawings, all of which were presented as thematic chapters, and set to a musical score. ‘It was incredible,’ Korek says. ‘It’s so interesting to see how he seamlessly embraces new technologies.’
She has long admired Hockney’s work, not least because his canyon paintings reminded her of her childhood, particularly the many car rides ‘over the hill’ from the San Fernando Valley to LACMA, which she would frequent with her mother, who was a graphic designer. ‘The first time I saw those paintings I thought, that’s my life!’ she laughs. Links to the technological possibilities of creativity have been a recurring obsession for Korek. She still has the drawing and measuring tools her mother used in her design work before the digital age took hold and recalls working on early artist collaborations while working in the prints and drawings department at the museum she so often visited. ‘It was so much more tactile back then,’ she says. ‘The world couldn’t be more different now.’
That much is certainly true. Part of Korek’s mission for the Serpentine is developing the ways that galleries can reach audiences through new platforms and more unorthodox modes of communication. This summer sees two new exhibitions at Serpentine, both of which reflect this. The first, at Serpentine North, is Third World: The Bottom Dimension, a multi-part project by Gabriel Massan in collaboration with other artists, which runs until 22 October.
Massan has built a video game exploring the Black-Brazilian experience as it intersects with the ramifications of colonialism, with each level conceptualised with one of the featured artists. While the game can be played across the globe, the exhibition brings it to life – as well as playing the game in the gallery, you can also view works from the artists involved.
‘What we’re trying to do is continue to present physical exhibitions that have elements that can be experienced from anywhere in the world. Massan is an incredible example of this,’ says Korek. Has she played the game? ‘I loved The Legend of Zelda at college, but I have to say I didn’t do very well at this one,’ she laughs. ‘Visitors are loving it, especially kids. Even if you’re not a gamer, it brings people into the present – we’re thrilled with the response to it.’
Along with recent ventures into the digital sphere, the importance of local outreach and accessibility – especially connecting to nature – is also crucial to Korek’s long-term strategy. For her, the natural world and new technologies are inextricably linked. ‘Just look at Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s garden,’ she says, referring to the London-based artist’s Pollinator Pathmaker project, which uses artificial intelligence to develop insect-friendly gardens. The version in Kensington Gardens commissioned with the Serpentine last year features over 4,000 plants and 60 species and is still going strong.
Fast forward to this summer and Web(s) of Life by Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno and collaborators fills the Serpentine South Gallery, both inside and out. The project – on until 10 September – is a living, collaborative and multi-species exhibition which utilises digital technologies and interactive sculptures to teach visitors about the area’s biodiversity and how we can relate to our environment in a more responsive, responsible way.
It’s a call to action about the climate emergency and in what Saraceno refers to as the ‘Ballad of Weather Dependency’, solar panels have been installed on the gallery roof to power the exhibition and the air conditioning turned off. ‘Tomás thinks about the exhibition as a living organism that is responsive to the weather, so when it’s too hot, parts of the exhibition are closed,’ explains Korek.
Saraceno has long been fascinated by spiders and they feature in the exhibition. ‘Our galleries are pitch dark and all you can see is a series of spotlit shimmering, quivering webs,’ says Korek. ‘It really reflects Tomás’s preoccupation with spiders and their webs as a source of wonder and inspiration. You can also see a giant web through a spider confessional box. His passion for turning people from being afraid of spiders to loving them is incredible.’
It’s certainly proving to be a busy summer for Serpentine, so what does time off look like for Korek? She is, she says, still adjusting to life in the capital. ‘I grew up in LA and continued to discover something new every day, and even though I have been in London three years now, it feels more like one thanks to the pandemic,’ she explains when I quiz her about her London life, before adding, ‘truthfully, I haven’t had the chance to explore enough to have a favourite neighbourhood!’ That said, she does have a few preferred haunts, including Hyde Park pub The Swan, the plant-based eatery Farmacy, and The Wolseley.
Getting out into nature is also important for Korek. ‘Back in LA I would always go on hikes in the mountains,’ she says. Living in London is an adjustment, but she has found respite in the swathes of vast greenery the city has to offer. ‘Hampstead Heath is the closest I can get to an LA hike vibe,’ she laughs. Though it would seem the cities are poles apart, Korek finds that both are home to richly diverse communities that thrive in distinct neighbourhoods. ‘There is definitely a connection between London and LA,’ she says. ‘There is a creative circuit across all kinds of culture and entertainment, and these two cities are key components.’
This artistic cross-section is something Korek loves to see, which is why she admires the work of Institute of Contemporary Arts director Bengi Ünsal, who took the helm last year. Ünsal’s goal is to refocus on all kinds of creativity, not just contemporary art, by introducing a robust schedule of concerts and late-night parties. ‘It is a truly interdisciplinary programme,’ says Korek, ‘and you see the same thing with Dazed [the media company founded in 1991 by Jefferson Hack and Rankin Waddell], there’s a lot of energy there. Whether it be poetry or music or art.’
For Korek, arts education is key to London’s thriving culture. ‘The educational system has a great impact on the entire creative industry, think University of the Arts, RCA, RA Schools, Central St Martins,’ she says. ‘London is such a global capital, it’s a city where students and graduates can immediately put their ideas into action.’ This optimistic outlook, coupled with an expansive idea of how art, music, film and night life can come together, is integral to Korek’s vision for the future of creativity. As she puts it, ‘The more arts and culture organisations collaborate, the more impact we can have together.’