Massimiliano Gioni, who in October was promoted to the top curatorial job at the New Museum, is not all that interested in discovering the next hot young thing. He’s not someone whose name is attached to a particular ism, and you’re unlikely to see him palling around with James Franco and Larry Gagosian. In fact, to hear him tell it, he’s retreating from the local art scene, trying to focus on slivers of the world far from Chelsea or Brooklyn. “When I first came to New York, it was exciting to be here and try to learn as much as I could,” he says. “Now what I find exciting is to try to see what New York doesn’t.”
It sounds like a literal reading of the museum’s long-standing credo (“new art and new ideas”), and if he can convey that fringe-y enthusiasm in the galleries, Gioni will be the defining curatorial voice the New Museum badly needs. Since its reboot on the Bowery in 2007, the 34-year-old institution has seemed increasingly adrift. The chilly and smallish exhibition space in the shiny new building was criticized right out of the gate. So was its apparent tendency toward art-insider money politics: A show entirely made up of art owned by the Greek billionaire collector (and museum trustee) Dakis Joannou caught hell, as has the museum’s heavy reliance on certain gallerists, like Gavin Brown. Gioni’s appointment was widely perceived as a breath of integrity and fresh air, one that could cure an ailing institution. “If he can’t do it, it can’t be done in this phase of the museum’s life,” one major critic says.
The New Museum, which has no permanent collection to speak of, occupies a position right on the line between populism and art-world insularity. (It’s more of an oversize gallery than a museum, in some ways.) Gioni, despite his deep connections and insiderdom, sees his role as getting away from the herd mentality on both those fronts. “I think there is a lot of conformity in my profession,” he says, “and you have to work against it.” To that end, the first two shows since his promotion have certainly been drawn from the unbuzzy edges. One is a retrospective of the art of Gustav Metzger, a reclusive conceptualist living in London who became known in the sixties for creating art that gradually destroyed itself. The other is devoted to the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose films (most recently Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) are dreamy, meditative, and not for everyone.
“I think his role is essential,” says the independent curator Francesco Bonami, who gave Gioni his first big break when he asked him to organize a small pavilion for the 2003 Venice Biennale. “In spite of its openness, America in general is a very closed-minded platform. Massimiliano is fighting that very well.” Adds the artist Maurizio Cattelan, a longtime friend and collaborator, “He wants to make museums better places, places to be used by many people, places where you can find the obscure, the unknown, and the known in a good balance. He understands exactly what New York City needs and what the New Museum was missing.”
That may be, in part, because Gioni was not born to the art world. He’s from a small city outside Milan that he compares to Newark, New Jersey, where he grew up making artsy T-shirts and playing in a Sonic Youth–inspired band. “There was a lot of attraction to people being weird and accepting their weirdness” is how he describes his teen years. He ended up in New York just as Chelsea was beginning to happen, and he and a couple of friends opened a space on West 20th Street called the Wrong Gallery. It was not your average white box. For starters, it was only about one foot deep, and its heavy glass door was permanently locked. “Nothing was for sale,” says Gioni, who along with Cattelan and Ali Subotnick worked their budding connections to secure projects from Martin Creed, Paul McCarthy, Lawrence Weiner, and many others. “There was no budget. Everything had to be a trade or a gift”—including the free rent, which they scored by agreeing to exhibit paintings by the landlord’s wife.
The projects they executed were irreverent and fun. They ranged from sound works to light works to decals on the door reading FUCK OFF WE’RE CLOSED. The attention the gallery got led in turn to bigger and bigger curatorial gigs, including the 2006 Berlin Biennale, the directorship of the nomadic Nicola Trussardi Foundation, and an acclaimed biennial in Gwangju, South Korea, last year. The Wrong Gallery itself was even reincarnated in the Tate Modern for several years, after it was evicted from Chelsea. (It closed in 2008.)
Though he’s become the very picture of the insider, Gioni is still a little bit of a loner. He reads a lot more than you might expect—lately War and Peace, plus some Nabokov. “I think it’s important to spend as much on books as on plane tickets,” he jokes over dinner at Kanoyama in the East Village. (In his case, that’s a lot: We’ve shoehorned this meeting into a short window between a research trip to Moscow and Gioni’s delayed-by-six-months honeymoon.) “I always hated that image of the curator as an international globe-trotter,” he says. “It is part of what you have to do, but the job is also about scholarship and research and work.” He sees the jet-setting part of the gig as not so much a perk as a chance to see lots of weird, overlooked, and under-the-radar art.
Gioni’s next exhibition is as cerebral as the first two, if a little broader, and he says it’s a show he’s been thinking about for a long time. Titled “Ostalgia” and opening July 14, it’s populated by largely unknown Eastern European artists making art in and about the former Soviet Union. And after that … well, don’t expect a crowd-pleasing smash anytime soon. “Lately, I am very fascinated by things that are kind of forgotten. They are not pleasing in a straightforward way. In New York, there is a desire to please—too much. I didn’t want to start with something that was winking and saying, Hey, come along! Ultimately, the last way to be radical today is either being boring or being a little bit difficult.”