“Women are gender but men are normal.” The speaker is Iwona Blazwick, the inspired, immensely competent director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery. This glamorously extended building reopens in April, taking in the Passmore Edwards Library next door after a landmark £13.5m architectural project spearheaded by Blazwick and overseen by artist adviser Rachel Whiteread.

Blazwick, cool, blonde, unflappable in a slate-grey body-hugging dress that somehow enhances her nun-like self-assurance and dedication, leads me through labyrinthine building works and admits that “growing up in a matriarchal family, I didn’t know there was such a thing as sexism”. Her launch shows are Isa Genzken, recently voted by Monopol magazine “the world’s most important living artist”, Goshka Macuga, shortlisted for last year’s Turner Prize, and highlights from the British Council collection, such as a Bridget Riley painting “so powerful it hits the back of your eyeballs”. With such exposure for women artists and curators, can gender still be an issue?

“Did you know that in Italy a woman with children still has to get her husband’s permission to renew her passport?” Blazwick flashes back. “Religious groups across the board discriminate against women. We have a long way to go. But it’s never revolution, it’s always evolution.”

Blazwick, diplomat fixer par excellence – her latest coup is to bring the tapestry of Picasso’s “Guernica”, which hangs at the United Nations in New York, to east London as part of Macuga’s exhibition – should know. No museum in the world has evolved more dazzlingly yet sensitively to meet changes in art and society than the Whitechapel. Peel back its history and, encapsulated in its lineage of artists, exhibitions, directors, lies the story of a century of British cultural life.

Founded in a glorious, light-drenched arts-and-crafts building in 1901 by Samuel and Henrietta Barnett “to bring great art to the people of east London”, it opened with works by Constable, Turner and Hogarth. Early audiences in this “neighbourhood of aspiration” were impoverished Jewish locals from whom emerged the Whitechapel Boys – Bomberg, Epstein, Mark Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg: Britain’s first modernists. Between the wars, high-profile visitors included “Guernica”, in an exhibition opened by Clement Attlee to protest against the Spanish civil war. In 1956, “This Is Tomorrow” introduced pop art to a mass audience and made Whitechapel the hippest art destination of the 1960s. Other postwar firsts included inaugural British exhibitions for Pollock, Rothko, Hockney and – curated by young director Nicholas Serota – quintessential East End artists Gilbert and George.

“Everyone I know who is passionate about art has had a formative experience at the gallery,” says Blazwick. “I had mine with Eva Hesse: I knew that I had to be a curator.” She took over in 2002 and has made her mark with key solo shows – Nan Goldin, Gerhard Richter – and pioneering, argumentative retrospectives. “Faces in the Crowd” made national headlines for luring an important Manet from Washington to Whitechapel; this year’s exhibition of Asian photography from 1840 is “bound up with the history of democracy”. Both typify Blazwick’s talent for pinpointing historical themes that resonate with Whitechapel’s inner-city location and immigrant community, where mosques and tandoori take-aways have long replaced synagogues and delis.

Blazwick herself, as London’s only female director of a major public gallery and the child of an immigrant family, carries the Whitechapel’s story symbolically into the 21st century. Her parents, Polish refugees, arrived in Britain in 1947. Both became architects, shaping Blazwick’s aesthetic sensibility – she lingers as we move through the galleries on details, pointing out “the weird passion for terracotta” on the former library, and “the organic natural materials, not Foster’s steel and glass but something vernacular, tactile, closer to the body” in its sympathetic conversion to an art space.

“For my parents, modernity was everything. My mum was a real example to me, she had her own practice and was interested in introducing art into architecture. They loved clean surfaces. This generation had a passion for hygiene, they wanted to leave the past behind in fusty Victorian buildings. This was tomorrow – architecture that unified everyone, an international style transcending nationality and ethnicity.”

Blazwick grew up in Blackheath, in south London, educated at a convent grammar – her parents stuck tenaciously to Catholicism, though she is “a lifelong devout atheist”. The family’s bohemian lifestyle “mortified and deeply embarrassed me as a child”. A degree in English and Fine Art taught her “the struggle that art involves, so I always resist people who dismiss artists as conmen. Artists can’t help doing what they do – they’re cursed with that destiny.”

Her first job was at a publisher of prints by Hockney, Hamilton, Jasper Johns. “Every night I came home and made art. One day I realised it was completely derivative, and I would never have the vision or originality or drive …It was the best thing that ever happened – the big phew!” She “lucked out” with a job at the ICA in the early 1980s, the epoch of critical theory when “the canonical thinking of Clement Greenberg was finally smashed with the eruption of postmodernism.” This was Blazwick’s second epiphany and, crucially, roots her intellectual development with that of today’s leading artists.

“It was a seminal time, I feel we’re still living through the fall-out. The YBAs [Young British Artists] come straight out of it. Suddenly these kids were exposed to feminism, psychoanalysis, anthropology. There was a move away from the romantic idea of abstract expressionism to minimalism, Fluxus – that you can do something with the small gesture – or someone else can make the work. And it was a coming of age when women entered the art world: we showed Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer.” She was “far too busy” to give motherhood a thought until in her 40s she married political philosopher Richard Noble; they have an eight-year-old daughter.

Blazwick was Tate Modern’s first chief curator and still misses “the exhilarating scale of the architecture, the collection, all that expertise in one place, the status which means you can borrow whatever you like. Here I’m always pleading and begging.” My money is on her as Serota’s eventual successor; as a bold strategist for both high culture and political and social inclusiveness she has an unrivalled reputation, as recognised at the end of last year when London’s mayor Boris Johnson appointed her chairman of his London Cultural Strategy Group, advising on the promotion and development of London as world-class arts capital. Meanwhile, Blazwick can pull off tremendous exhibitions at the Whitechapel partly because it is a venue uniquely loved by artists. Among those who donated more than £2m worth of works at a 2006 charity auction, “Defining the Contemporary”, for the gallery’s revitalisation, were Damien Hirst, Mark Wallinger, Lucian Freud, Peter Doig, Jeff Wall, Georg Baselitz, Carl Andre.

That range reflects the Whitechapel’s ability to be avant-garde without being crippled by political correctness. Its moment is now: “the East End will flourish, it’s cheap …and during a recession, art may never be more necessary, reminding us that we are civilised and that there’s something beyond our daily needs.”

‘Isa Genzken Retrospective’ opens at the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1 on April 5. www.whitechapel.org

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