Catching Up with Gasworks’ New Director, Robert Leckie

Leckie is inheriting the Gasworks directorship from Alessio Antoniolli, who led the space for twenty-five years.

Robert Leckie, 2023. Photo: Max McClure

In March, Robert Leckie will become the new director of the influential London institution Gasworks, known for cutting-edge shows and an important residency. Leckie returns to Gasworks from Spike Island in Bristol and inherits the Gasworks directorship from Alessio Antoniolli, who led the space for twenty-five years. We caught up with Leckie to hear about his plans for the space moving forward

You’re returning to lead Gasworks, having worked there from 2011 to 2018 as curator and head of programs. What are the advantages of having that kind of institutional knowledge? 

I think the main advantage is that I know—and have been part of—Gasworks’ history. I have worked closely with many of the artists that have been through the institution, including curating various exhibitions there that have been important to my development as a curator. This gives me a clear sense of how Gasworks’ model has evolved over time, meaning that I can return as Director already attuned to its strengths and challenges.

Where do you see Gasworks fitting into the landscape of London institutions? Or on the landscape of the international art world?

There are so many great institutions in London and elsewhere, but what I think is unique about Gasworks is how it manages to create an intimate space for research, exchange, and collaboration among a wide range of artists and stakeholders. Gasworks hosts residencies by international artists; commissions significant new work for its exhibitions program; engages meaningfully with local communities through its participation program; and provides much-needed subsidized studios for London-based artists. I am interested in how all these activities overlap and intersect. Though it is widely known for being an internationally oriented organization—largely thanks to the residencies program and its leading role in Triangle Network—what is perhaps less well known is that it is also deeply rooted in its local context in ways that are often understated but no less vital.

What are some of the favorite shows that you’ve done at Gasworks over the years?

The exhibitions that stand out most for me the most are: Monira Al Qadiri: The Craft; Sidsel Meineche Hansen: SECOND SEX WAR, and Candice Lin: A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour. Transforming the gallery into an American diner on an alien spaceship with Monira was a very fun, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I adore Sidsel’s low-tech, high-tech weirdness and almost-slapstick bluntness, and am proud of the very low-budget book we made together to accompany the project. And working with Candice was both mind-expanding and the foundation of my eternal admiration for her, not to mention probably the first and last time I will do a show with Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

Gasworks also has an important residency. What do you look for in Gasworks residents, personally? 

I think the residency program is all about supporting artists’ potential. How much do they stand to benefit from the experience? How can we support them to get the most out of it? And how can Gasworks, as a London-based institution with London-based staff, remain open to ideas and approaches that are often unfamiliar and stem from entirely different contexts? Residencies at Gasworks and in London can be hugely rewarding because the organization and the city have so much to offer. But they can also be hard because artists have to live and work away from their families, friends, and support networks, often communicating in a different language, and sharing accommodation and a studio environment with three other artists from other parts of the world that they usually don’t know. In most cases, the artists get on well and remain friends, but they need to be open to other people and different perspectives; they need to be willing to give something of themselves to the program to get the most out of it.

You’re replacing Alessio Antoniolli, who led the space for twenty-five years. What did you learn from him?

Among many things, Alessio has taught me that listening carefully, being compassionate, and having a sense of humor are all qualities of strong leadership. He has also taught me the importance of nurturing and supporting colleagues both within and beyond your institution—I have always been astounded by the number of artists and peers from all over the world who look to Alessio for advice, and his consistent willingness to give it.

Right now there’s a big show of Pacita Abad touring the western U.S. You co-curated the U.K.’s first solo show of her work in 2020. What do you think speaks to people about her work in this moment?

The thing that struck me most while working with Pio Abad on Pacita Abad: Life in the Margins at Spike Island was Pacita’s insatiable appetite for different materials, subjects, and techniques. Literally nothing was off the menu, from trapunto paintings depicting stories of ‘immigrant experience’, to monumental, free-floating abstract canvases bursting with color, through to her experimentation with buttons, shells and different textile traditions. I think today we would be much more likely to police this kind of cross-cultural, almost carnivorous engagement with the world. And yet there’s something wonderful about Pacita’s high-energy celebration and reinterpretation of whatever she happened to encounter.

You were a juror for the 2022 Turner Prize. What’s something about that experience that might surprise people? 

All I can say is that I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss contemporary practices in depth with my co-jurors. I feel more ambivalent about having to award the prize to just one nominee.

Catching Up with Gasworks’ New Director, Robert Leckie