An Italian curator in NYC: interview with Cecilia Alemani

Skin-tight red jeans, sunglasses and a brilliant smile. That’s how Cecilia Alemani welcomes her guests at the Empire Diner on 10th Avenue. “My office is here in Chelsea”, she says sipping lemonade, “but it’s too noisy”. As an independent curator, her work unfolds on two fronts: on the one hand, the collaborations with museums and institutions such as the Tate Modern in London, the PS1 in New York, the Venice Film Festival, and on the other the experimental projects and the courage to dare. Ms Alemani has directed the X Initiative, a non-profit space in Chelsea, New York, where, over a year, she planned and accomplished over 50 events and founded the “No Soul For Sale”, a festival of artistic collectives and independent art spaces from around the world.

For the past nine years she has lived in New York, where she is currently engaged on two fronts of great international importance. For the first edition of the American Contemporary Art Fair, Frieze (4-7 May, Randall’s Island, New York) Ms Alemani is responsible for the “Projects” section, consisting of 8 works commissioned from eight artists, and for the cycle of conferences “Talks”. Simultaneously, since October 2011 she has been the director of the High Line Art, the public art program that takes place on the High Line, the elevated park that runs along Manhattan’s West Side, on the lines of a railway track abandoned in 1980.

Most of the “Frieze Projects” will be displayed outside the exhibition stands and will be accessible to everyone. Did you get this idea from the High Line public art projects?
Actually, the opposite is true. I started working in Florence long before I was appointed director of the High Line Art program.

Cecilia Alemani

Oddly enough, I had never dealt with public art before and now I am responsible for two projects, both in an outdoor space. They are similar, but at the same time very different in terms of timing and public attendance. At the High Line, we commission works that will be exhibited for 12 months and seen by 4 million people: passers-by, tourists, New Yorkers – not an insider public. At Frieze, instead, we worked for a year on works that will be displayed only for four days and the public consists almost entirely of art lovers.

How did you select the art projects for “Frieze Projects” at Randall’s Island?
I was interested in making a connection with the island, with its history, geography and social stratification. It’s a very fascinating and mysterious place. Now it looks like a large outdoor sports center, but historically it was the island where outsiders were interned. The XVII century maps show that Randall’s Island housed hospitals for insane, “intoxicated” and homeless people. I have been working at this project for ten months and I have not met a single person who has been on the island. Though it is part of New York City, it is still an unknown and mysterious place. So, I wanted the displayed works of art to interface with the space that will host them and with its history.

In New York there are already many contemporary art fairs, and until now the most important has been the Armory Show. Do you think that Frieze was really necessary?
I think so, yes. To be honest, there aren’t many quality fairs in New York. Frieze aims at bringing an extremely high quality, like that which emerges from ten years of fairs in London. Change is always profitable both in the world of fairs and of art galleries. Initially, they were concentrated in Soho, later the art districts became Chelsea and then the Lower East Side. I am curious to see Nada, the fair organized in Miami by a gallery collective that will be in New York for the first time together with Frieze. There is safety in numbers. The more the quality fairs, the more public and collectors we will be able to attract.

Going back to the High Line, the renovations of the third section will begin in July. What will change with respect to the two sections already open to the public?
Of the so-called “Section 3”, the most important for us will be the renovation of the “spur”, i.e. the area where the lines branch off and on one side result in a spur-shaped crossover. This will be the only wide space in the park as the rest develops lengthwise. There, we will organize concerts and shows and there will be room for the audience. For the rest, “Section 3” will be more meager than the two previous sections. In practice, there will only be a footbridge that will allow to continue walking along the abandoned track, as it was in the Eighties. All around there will be the new Hudson Yards buildings.

The High Line

As curator, what are you searching for in contemporary art?
Since I moved here, in 2003, I became interested in studying the culture of non-profit and of the spaces managed by artists in the United States. Another aspect I am very interested in is to link artists from my generation or even younger, with artists from previous generations who have been unfairly forgotten. Interesting interactions always develop and, usually, the senior artist always looks younger than all the others. In my work, I always try to leave all the doors open, I never follow a particular discipline or aesthetic.

Your American experience started with a master at the Bard College, at Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. What would you suggest to a young curator who wishes to follow in your footsteps?
I chose the easiest way. I wanted to go abroad and the best way to do it was to go back to school. It was sort of a leap in the dark because I had never been to the United States before and I went there directly to attend the courses at the Bard College. It’s a way I would suggest, but it’s not the only one. Another very useful experience, for instance, would be to work in an art gallery in order to understand how things really work. Before moving to New York, I had worked in a gallery in Milan and then I collaborated on fairs like Artissima in Turin and Frieze, first in London and then in New York. It’s easy to criticize the commercial aspect of art, but it’s thanks to it that the system is still on its feet.

The High Line

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