Iwona Blazwick OBE. Photograph: Whitechapel Gallery

Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick OBE has announced her decision to step down after 20 years in the role.

Blazwick’s last day will be in April, but she plans to work as an independent curator, both with the Whitechapel and on a range of international projects.

She said: “This has been an emotional decision because of the great love I have for Whitechapel Gallery, our exhibitors, audiences, colleagues and communities.

“Over the last two decades I have had the opportunity to exhibit, commission and publish some of the world’s greatest artists; to lead the expansion of the gallery; to forge relationships with international institutions and a huge range of cultural practitioners, important collectors, and philanthropists; and to work with inspiring colleagues.

“As the gallery emerges from the pandemic in a strong financial position and with programmes admired and respected around the world, now seems a good time to hand over the reins!”

Blazwick came to work at Whitechapel Gallery in 2001, having previously been at the Tate Modern and London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.

She launched a series of initiatives, including exhibitions and educational programmes, resulting in a 300 per cent increase in local, national and international audiences at the gallery.

She also founded the global consortium Artists’ Film International in 2017, with arts organisations from 22 countries able to nominate an outstanding moving image artist from their region whose work is screened independently by the entire consortium for local audiences.

In 2009, the gallery doubled in size with the acquisition of the adjacent former Whitechapel Library, which was turned into new galleries and creative studio spaces.

Notable exhibitions that have happened under Blazwick’s watch include the British Council Collection (2009), Contemporary Art Society (2013), The National Museum of Women in the Arts (2017), The Hiscox Collection (2020) and the Christen Sveaas Art Foundation (2021).

Whitechapel Gallery chairman Alex Sainsbury said: “Iwona’s illustrious direction of the Whitechapel Gallery will resonate locally and internationally as a landmark of such institutional leadership.

“All who have worked with her and alongside her brilliant team have felt the tremendous energy generated here.

“It is immensely sad to see her leave, but her vision will continue to inspire, at the Whitechapel Gallery and beyond.”