Pauline Boty’s 1964 painting 'It’s a Man’s World I' pretty much sums it up. Amid a collage of archival images of famous men – Einstein, Elvis, JFK, Lenin – is a single scarlet rose in bloom. Captured up close, its petals soft and blurred, the flower glows, a beacon against blue and black. It could be said to represent Boty’s life as a female artist in the patriarchal London art world of the 1950s and ’60s. It was also the image that came to mind when I began to look into the life and work of Joanna Drew, a remarkable woman who died nearly two decades ago.

“I think of Joanna as an ‘institutional outsider’ […] an outsider on the inside,” said the great abstract painter Bridget Riley in Caroline Hancock’s Joanna Drew and the Art of Exhibitions, a book that traces Drew’s personal and institutional history. At a time when positions of power in the arts were mostly held by men, she not only made a name for herself but also transformed the art scene in Britain.

The daughter of Brigadier Francis Greville Drew and the artist Sannie Drew, Joanna was born in India. She studied art and art history, a combined course at the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art, and while she was there organised two exhibitions with her fellow students. “We got great assistance from the Scottish [Committee of the] Arts Council in those days; they gave us a bit of money and told us what to do,” said Drew. “It was all extremely amateurish. But the art wasn’t. I am staggered when I think of what we were able to borrow and hang up on strings on screens in the University library.” They loaded pieces by Braque and Léger and Picasso into the back of the car and drove them up to Edinburgh.

This kind of experience was fundamental for Drew, who in 1952 began her career at the Arts Council of Great Britain. Created after the Second World War, the organisation provided exhibitions for museums and galleries around the country, which at the time didn’t have the internal infrastructure to create their own programmes. Drew started out as exhibition assistant and went on to become director of art.

“If I have an ideology, it can be summed up as showing great art of any period that is relevant to a contemporary public,” she remarked. “An important exhibition is one that people are still talking about ten years later.” Take the legendary Picasso exhibition that she and the art historian Roland Penrose brought to the Tate Gallery in 1960 – one of 150 shows she made during her 40 years at the Arts Council. “I am a bit of a stayer,” she admitted.

In 1987, Drew became the first director of the newly independent Hayward Gallery, which under her guidance evolved into a leading venue for thematic exhibitions of Western and non-Western art – she called them “thinkpieces”. She organised and installed the Hayward Gallery’s second major show – paintings and drawings by Van Gogh – and championed lesser-known artists, too.

“It was, I think, the strength of her unassertive presence that distinguished her: approachable, attentive and profoundly committed,” says Riley, who worked with Drew on her first show at Hayward Gallery. In her book, Hancock, an independent curator who organised exhibitions there from 2002 to 2008, describes Drew’s intuition and sense of precision, her collaborative and egalitarian approach. “Joanna considered herself a worker, getting on with the business of running a department and of exhibition-making, an art at which she excelled.” As well as talented, she was notoriously self-effacing and often insistent that others should take the credit.

Between the 1950s and the ’90s, the British art scene shed its post-war insularity and adopted a more cosmopolitan and open-minded outlook. The change, Hancock writes, was largely due to “the thinking and doing of a small number of arts professionals”, of whom Joanna was “the least assuming […] but also one of the most effective”. She refined exhibition-making, placing greater emphasis on the experience of going to a gallery and showing art from all periods. She was a friend to artists and a mentor to the next generation. In the words of Irène Bizot, the former head of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the founder of the Bizot Group, “Joanna was never a feminist, but she made others after her become feminist.”

Drew was less fond of some developments, among them the personality cult around individual artists. No doubt she would also have taken issue with the way the word curate is bandied about today. She would state, “I don’t have a personal style of exhibition organising, it is a corporate style, not an ego trip. We weren’t called curators in those days. We weren’t impresarios. Not like nowadays….” She didn’t see herself as curator, and she didn’t see herself as a collector either. “I have never been a collector; we can walk into our great museums and galleries and possess all that for free.”

When Drew announced her retirement in 1992 aged 63, after four decades of service, Tim Hilton wrote in the Guardian that she was “unquestionably the most powerful individual in the British art scene”. She was a “maker of exhibitions” who introduced modern and contemporary art to a wider public. A single scarlet rose in bloom, glowing.

Words by Chloë Ashby, an author and arts journalist. Her first novel, Wet Paint, will be published by Trapeze in April 2022.

Black and white portrait of Joanna Drew by Markéta Luskacová courtesy of National Portrait Gallery and image of flowers by Marco Kesseler. All other images courtesy of Skira.

Joanna Drew and the Art of Exhibitions is published by Skira.

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