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New V&E East director seeks transformation

Gus Casely-Hayford: ‘Some things draw people together. Seeing truly great art can do it.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer.

Kadish Morris, Meet Gus Casely-Hayford, the man on a mission to drag museums into the 21st century, The Guardian, 21 March 2021

Gus Casely-Hayford, the V&A East’s first director, discovered art in the most tender of ways. As a young boy on a snowy day, lying beside a radiator, he watched his older brother Joseph as he drew. “I had this realisation that you could take a pencil and a pad and you could turn it into something of a whirlwind. It’s that sense of both ingenuity and possibility that I fell in love with. I’ve spent most of my career pursuing being close to that kind of excellence.”

How do you build those genuine and unexpected sparks of inspiration into the infrastructure of a brand new museum? It’s a question Casely-Hayford, after spending two years in America as the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington DC, has returned to the UK to answer. He started his new post last spring leading a project to build and launch two sister sites in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London: a five-storey museum at Stratford waterfront and, 10 minutes’ walk away, a four-storey collection and research centre at Here East. As V&A East, both will open in 2023 and join BBC Music, Sadler’s Wells, University College London, and the UAL’s College of Fashion as part of East Bank, the mayor’s £1.1bn creative quarter and Olympic legacy project.

“I want V&A East to tell the story of cultural production over the past 5,000 years, with some wonderful shows of some of the great creators,” says Casely-Hayford. The new site is part of the V&A’s development plans that began in 2001 and have seen the launch of a photography centre, the creation of the Exhibition Road Quarter at the original Kensington site, the opening of a new museum in Dundee in 2018 and more. Also underway is the transformation of the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in the East End. The intention with V&A East is to make the collection more accessible to visitors and more digitally engaged. “Just watching the concrete being poured,” Casely-Hayford says of visiting the museum’s construction site recently, “you get a sense of this vision coming to life. It’s going to be glorious.”

Although he enjoyed his tenure at America’s Smithsonian museum, I get the feeling that Casely-Hayford is happy to be back in London, his eyes lighting up over our Zoom call whenever he talks about his home town. “Best arts education. Best arts sector. That’s what drew me back here,” he says. “I know New York. I know LA. I’ve visited so many of the great cultural hubs but there’s something about London. There’s a particular kind of originality. If you think of the great east London practitioners of recent years, Alexander McQueen and David Bailey, they are people who, in terms of their background and upbringing, had to push against a lot of closed doors. When those doors do open, those are the people that seem to define eras and moments. Britain is catalysed in great part by people who sit on the margins and the fringes.”

Casely-Hayford was born in south London in 1964 to a Ghanaian family where talent seems to run in the bloodline. Gus’s grandfather, Joseph Ephraim Casely-Hayford, was a journalist, educator and politician notable for his contributions to pan-African theory, who married Adelaide Smith, a writer, activist and pioneer of women’s education in Sierra Leone, where she established a school for girls in 1923 during colonial rule.

An external render view of the new V&A East museum in Stratford, east London.

Gus’s father, Victor, trained as a barrister but went on to become an accountant, while his uncle, Beattie, was an engineer who was the first director of the Ghana Arts Council and a director of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. Victor married Ransolina, who worked for the British Council, and they had four children, Gus being the youngest. His sister Margaret, a lawyer, was the first female chancellor of Coventry University. Joseph, the celebrated fashion designer who blended tailoring with streetwear, died in 2019 after being diagnosed with cancer three years earlier. His other brother, Peter, is a film-maker. “I felt very blessed and lucky growing up with very talented siblings. I was the youngest so I watched my sister go off to Oxford. My brother did incredibly well at the BBC and my other brother was a designer. It gave a sense that there were boundaries and barriers, but that you keep on going. I will forever feel indebted to them for that.”

The theme of boundaries and barriers pops up frequently in our conversation, and though from the outside it may appear that Casely-Hayford, now 57, has risen effortlessly through a career in the arts, he mentions that up until recently, there has been a lot of “stumbling from one opportunity to another”. Perhaps that’s why he is so passionate about access to culture, aware of the obstacles he once faced, and those that exist today. “We seem to create emotional and intellectual assault courses that make it hard for new audiences to really engage with the arts,” he says. “If you think of the museum paradigm, it has barely changed. You go into a space and you look through glass, you read a label and then you leave. If you look at so many other areas of cultural practice, they’ve been transformed over the course of the past 20 years by digital engagement, by demands for interactivity.”

V&A East presents an exciting opportunity, then, to reimagine the museum for contemporary needs. The five-storey museum, designed by Dublin’s O’Donnell + Tuomey (which also worked on the Photographers’ Gallery in London and the Lyric theatre in Belfast in 2011), will house two collection galleries, a major exhibition hall, a large-scale installation and events space, and more. “That building is based on a Balenciaga dress. It’s exquisite,” he says. “The space itself will be accessible in every possible way. We’ll build around it digital technologies, so you can both engage with the collection while you’re there and leave something of yourself behind, like comments. So it becomes not just a repository of objects, but of people’s thoughts and feelings and dreams.”

A rendering of V&A East at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, east London.

The neighbouring Collection and Research Centre has been designed by New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the firm that worked on the expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “Traditionally, collection centres were places only academics and specialists would go. You’d have to navigate a huge amount of security and bureaucracy. The V&A has more than 100,000 archives, 360,000 library books and 260,000 objects.” These will be taken out of storage and put on public view, some for the first time in generations. “We’ll have glass floors and glass balustrades. So rather than pressing your nose against a display case, we’re going to pick you up and place you in the centre of the collection. You’ll be able to look in any direction and see these objects, have hands-on time with pieces,” he says, adamant that the display won’t feel dusty or dry or inaccessible, but like something that belongs to the public.

Talking to Casely-Hayford, it’s clear that V&A seeks first and foremost to cater to Gen Z, those born between 1997 and 2015. “We have this amazing generation who are so culturally engaged. Through digital means, they have created all sorts of really dynamic and thrilling ways to engage with culture. Rather than patronise them and tell them what they ought to be thinking and learning, we want to work with them.” A programme of extensive community engagement and collaboration is planned from the outset: the design collective Resolve will be the museum’s youth workers in residence; a pilot project will also see 15 east Londoners aged 16-24 gaining gallery experience; and local arts organisations such as Create will collaborate on pre-opening events. And if that doesn’t work? “We want to get out into the communities and take our collection to the people. I had a session with my team in which I said I want to get to every single one of the 500 schools myself within the four boroughs of our site. I’ll be on my bicycle, going to schools and community centres, getting them inspired and excited about what’s coming,” he says. “The small amount of encouragement that was given to me as a child, it opened up horizons.”

So what will be on show when the V&A East opens its doors? Casely-Hayford tells me they will put on display huge things that have never been seen before, such as a carved and gilded 15th-century wooden ceiling from the Palacio de Altamira in Torrijos in Spain. The office of Edgar J Kaufmann, who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on Fallingwater, has been brought in its entirety and will be installed in the collection centre, he says. “But subtle things too. One of my earliest memories is my aunts bringing pieces of Ghanaian cloth and telling their stories. We will have some of those on display. They seem like modest things but they hold histories and take you on an amazing journey.”

Casely-Hayford cites the V&A’s 2019 Christian Dior exhibition as a success he hopes to replicate (the exhibition dedicated to the fashion house broke the museum’s attendance records with 594,994 visitors). “When you see an exhibition like Dior, how incredibly compelling it is, how beautifully produced it is – there is a huge amount of work, research and conservation that goes on behind the scenes. The way the V&A does things is awe-inspiring. I want to deploy all of that, for an audience in a part of London that has been so overlooked and neglected.”

A CG view of the interior of the collection and research centre, Here East.

Quite a challenge, I suggest, to be at the helm of a museum being built in a historically deprived area, amid the uncertainty of a decade that began with the temporary closure of all of Britain’s cultural institutions owing to Covid-19 (and now many – including the Tate galleries, the Science Museum and the V&A – have announced mass redundancy plans). “The pandemic has been tough,” he says. “For us, it’s extended the timetable for the build and added to the cost. Across the sector, it has brought a range of challenges. It reduced visitor numbers and challenged our financial models.

“But it’s also done something else,” he adds. “I live quite close to Hampstead Heath and I have watched people, who in lockdown, have been so craving the arts that they’ve been doing impromptu concerts and poetry readings. It’s underlined the importance of the arts.” Even when it comes to Brexit and the effects of Covid on travel, Casely-Hayford sees an opportunity. “In Britain, we are going to lose for the next couple of years, our international visitors. It gives us a chance to interact with local audiences. Not just the traditional museum-goers, but all those other people who would never consider it.”

Last July, after the killing of George Floyd in America, Casely-Hayford wrote a fiery essay for the Art Newspaper on the issue of racism in the arts. He wrote: “If students of African descent squeeze through narrow conduits into university or art school, they will rarely see themselves positively reflected among the faculty or in the curriculum. And if they favour a career in the arts – well, good luck.”

It’s easy to see him as an example of black excellence. Before the Smithsonian job, he was the director of the visual arts organisation Iniva, and before that, in charge of Africa 05, the largest African arts season ever hosted in Britain, involving more than 150 venues. But even with his family background he has had to do the infamous juggle, working multiple part-time jobs across various organisations and disciplines in order to keep his seat at the table.

“Race plays a part,” he says. “I could never have taken the traditional career path – beginning at the bottom of an institution and working my way up. I had to have multiple parallel careers because it was just impossible otherwise. My first big full-time job was as a director!” he says, referring to his post at Iniva, which he took up in 2006. “At V&A East we will employ more than 100 people. I hope the young version of me has the opportunity I never had. If V&A East is successful for one thing, I hope it’s that.”

You might recognise Casely-Hayford from the BBC Four series he presented, Lost Kingdoms of Africawhich first aired in 2010. In the show, he explored pre-colonial artworks from places such as Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and the kingdom of Asante. It’s this knowledge, this interest, that fuels him. “I began my academic career as a specialist in African art. It remains very deep in my curatorial DNA. I also have a residual frustration at how it hasn’t had the acknowledgement it deserves. It’s the culture with the longest historical narrative and the greatest ethnic diversity and yet we know so little about it. It absolutely infuriates me,” he says. “I am determined that V&A East will open the world up to new stories and Africa will absolutely be a part of that.”

Gus Casely-Hayford at the Meroe Pyramid ruins in Sudan for BBC Four’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa. Photograph: BBC/IWC Media.

Equally, he wants to celebrate British makers and history. “Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare, these are the British people that make me feel proud. In film, in photography, in almost every single medium, there are Brits. This is our Olympics. This is the area we win gold in all the time, in the cultural sector,” he says. But? “We need to invest. We invest in big infrastructure, building bridges and new roads. Culture is an area in which we naturally excel. If we invest, it will transform the opportunities of a generation.”

Computer-generated images of V&A East depict a kind of utopia. A museum surrounded by leafy trees, filled with curious people, sunlight gleaming through floor-to-ceiling windows. Letting go of some pandemic-induced nihilism, I can see the vision. The museum as a place of sanctuary, a centre of the community and art, thinking and education. “Our success must be tied to becoming a crucible for catharsis,” says Casely-Hayford. “I do feel there are some things that can draw people together. Watching sport does it. Seeing truly great art can do it. Thinking back to being a teenager – I would have adored a place of refuge and escape and inspiration. A place in which I could see myself reflected.

“Me being a minority-ethnic director adds an additional layer of stress and pressure,” he says. “As frustrated or as upset as I occasionally get, it’s hard not to be inspired by being given this incredibly precious opportunity to craft this thing that is so timely. So needed. For me, this is the dream job and I want to share that dream with as many people as I can.”

 This article was amended on 22 March 2021 because an earlier version located the Lyric theatre in Dublin. It is in Belfast.

V&A East is due to open in 2023.