Massimiliano Gioni is Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions at the New Museum in New York; Artistic Director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan.
The interview took place in the Italian restaurant Emporio, next to the Bowery in the Lower East Side of New York.
What is your job description at the New Museum where you are the Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions?
First of all to organise exhibitions and select the artists that we show. In a broader sense it means to programme an institution and make sure that it remains at the front of the debate on contemporary art. You want to be the place that people talk about, discuss and confront. The question is how to make a museum relevant.
And what do you do in order to achieve that?
We show New York what New York would not see if it were not for us. It means we give artists their first museum exhibition, which does not necessarily mean to show young artists. At the moment we have on show a Triennial of emerging artists and there are 50 artists, all at their first museum presentation. We just finished a show with Chris Ofili, the artist who became famous in 1999 for his clash with Mayor Giuliani, because at that time a painting by Ofili of the Virgin Mary was shown at the Brooklyn Museum. It is resting on two balls of elephant excrement. Since then Ofili was banished by New York museums.
How do you make the decision to show a specific artist?
On one hand it is instinct, on the other to understand what this city, with its different communities and audiences, needs at a certain moment. Understanding what is urgent at a certain moment.
And what is urgent today?
What is urgent is how you can identify the topics, issues and tensions that animate art and at the same time reach out to culture in general. As an example, last summer we did a big show of contemporary Arab art. It was an exhibition that described art, but also what is happening in a part of the world about which New York knows very little.
Is New York at the centre of your preoccupation?
On the contrary, we are focused on what this city needs to see and not what it already knows.
What is the place of New York today in the world of contemporary art?
On a very superficial level New York is still the contemporary art capital and it is not necessarily a good thing. It is a city with a great concentration of museums, art galleries, art spaces. Today there are many other centres like Hong Kong, Sao Paolo, Berlin, London, but what still distinguishes New York is its density, the fact that one is almost 100% sure that in this city any art professional sooner or later comes through.
Is it still a lively city from the creative point of view?
People who are critical of the city they say that it is becoming more and more a theme park. I believe there is no other city in the world where I can go to the Met, the Guggenheim, the Frick, the MoMA and the New Museum in one day. That is exceptional.
You curated the Biennale in Venice in 2013; you directed the Biennial of Gwangju in South Korea, the Biennial in Berlin. Is this very different from the Museum experience?
A Biennial is a different experience because first of all you know you will do it once. It is like a Russian roulette. With a Biennial you have the responsibility to change, to create a paradigm shift. When you work at a museum you have to find a balance between legacy and change. A Biennial is like an incredible romance, a flirtation. A museum is like thinking of a family, a house. I am lucky to have done both.
Since 2003 you have also run the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan. Is that a different experience? Is it different for you as you are Italian to work in your own country vis-a-vis being in New York?
In a way the Trussardi Foundation combines the identity of a Biennial with the entity of an institution, because we don’t have a fixed exhibition space and so we change space and every exhibition is completely new. We like to say we are a nomadic museum. When you work for more than ten years in a city, even if you change locations it builds up a legacy.
About working in Italy, for me I started with Trussardi when I was 29 and the President Beatrice Trussardi was 30, and for Italy we were extremely young. Usually when Italians go to work abroad it is like an escape to find a better future. For me with Trussardi I had this very exceptional situation, we could invent a type of institution that did not exist, and that I could only do in Italy. I don’t like to say I have left Italy. I still work there. It is more difficult to work in Italy because there is a big resistance to change, but maybe because I was lucky I could do shows in Italy that I could not do anywhere else.
Which ones for instance?
With Trussardi we made an exhibition of Pawal Althamer, a Polish artist who made a self-portrait of himself as a balloon. We did Urs Fischer’s first exhibition in Italy and now he has become an international star. We made an amazing retrospective with Peter Fischli and David Weiss, who are now at the Guggenheim. We were able to show them in unique spaces like a baroque Palazzo, or the most recent show which we had in the Army Officers’ Club.
And what next?
Again a change, a large group show that is called “The Great Mother”. It looks at the representation of motherhood in art and culture from 1900 to today, and it is a show that from that perspective looks at the clashes about emancipation in the 20th century.
How many visitors come to the New Museum, and are they mainly young people?
An average of 350,000 to 400,000 per year. Obviously compared to the Met or the MoMA we are kids, but first of all it means that the visitors to our shows are interested and dedicated, not just random tourists, and they are mostly young and very international. Besides the American public our strongest visitors are German, French, Italian and Chinese. We have a very global identity.
Is today’s art global?
It is global, bigger, I don’t know if it is necessarily more diverse. Sometimes the danger of globalisation is homogenisation, and living in a bigger world unfortunately sometimes means we all use the same clothes. I think as a museum we have a responsibility to promote difference and that is what I like about art. It is the place where difference is not just tolerated but expected.
How do you set about looking for new artists?
There is no received way. You travel, and the most important thing is to look, to try and see as much art work as possible. You travel, listen, study, and then you need an interest for what you don’t understand, to transform the moment of ignorance and fear into excitement.
In what kind of period for art do we live today? Is big money becoming a problem?
Using the words of Gerhard Richter in the Sixties we could say that we live in the world of Capitalist Realism, which means this combination of image, money and desire. This is maybe a pessimistic view. I like to think that we live in a moment of possibility, because on one hand you have the big money but on the other hand you also have this diffused creativity that is much more vibrant and far reaching. So it is difficult to package it into a movement like it used to be, but maybe for that reason it is more vital.
You talked about Urs Fischer, and you worked with Maurizio Cattelan who became stars. Are you discovering some new stars?
In general I don’t like the idea of the artist as a star because being an artist is a matter of searching, less about being a fixed light in the sky. The artist has to produce energy and he is more like the sun. There are many artists I like and am interested in. Since you asked me about the temperature in the art world today, I think that an artist like Ryan Trecartin gives us one of the most exciting and frightening representations of life in the digital age. There are also cities that at times capture a specific moment in history. For example Beirut in the last few years has been home to a group of incredible artists, and maybe this is a sign of a world in crisis which procures great artists. Sometimes a complex reality can be the best inspiration for artists.
What are your future plans?
As Vittorio Gassman used to say, “I have a great future behind me.”
March 26, 2015