“There’s no reason why New York doesn’t have an outstanding art fair,” said Benjamin Genocchio, who on Thursday was named the new director of the Armory Show. “And I want to find a new model that works in this environment. Basel, they’re headquartered in a remote Swiss village near the German border—this is a whole different model, this is a city that cares enormously about art. So I’m going to totally rethink this. It’s like an art fair 2.0.”
We were speaking on the phone just moments after it had been announced that Genocchio would take the reins of the preeminent New York-based art fair, ending months of speculation as to who would take over for former Armory Show director Noah Horowitz, who left in July to be the director Americas for Art Basel. Genocchio wasn’t on many shortlists. He has never worked at an art fair before. As the editor-in-chief of Artnet News, he ran a snarky publishing entity that billed itself as a “24-hour online global art market newswire.” He’s never worked in any field outside of publishing, and when stories appear under his byline, they often tend to be polarizing.
Genocchio began his career in his native Sydney, as an art historian, lecturer, and critic. In 2002, Genocchio’s blisteringly negative review of a high-profile show of Italian Old Masters at the National Museum of Australia in the capital city of Canberra ran on on the front page of the Australian and set off a media firestorm, when the show’s curator, Italy’s undersecretary of culture Vittorio Sgarbi, called a press conference in which he called the review “lies” and rattled off a stream of invective directed at Genocchio. Subsequently, Genocchio moved to New York and wrote freelance art journalism for the New York Times, then become the editorial director of Louise Blouin Media (where, full disclosure, I reported to him as a staff writer from April 2012 to August 2012).
He said it never occurred to him to aspire to the directorship of something like an art fair, until these conversations began in the last few months.
“I never thought about it until the moment I was approached for this position,” he said. “And I resisted for a long time, because I had just built Artnet News. I love Artnet News, it’s my baby. I’ve been vested in the world of digital publishing, so I’ve never considered this before, but I began to get a sense of this enormous opportunity.”
The appointment must have been a surprise to anyone familiar with Genocchio’s recent bylines—like many art journalists, he is not a big fan of art fairs. A recent Artnet News post entitled “25 Ways to Change the Art World (For the Better)” began with this nugget of an idea: “Cancel Art Basel in Miami Beach—it is has become a degrading event for art and artists. Stop the madness!”
“What does it mean to be an art fair in 2016?” Genocchio said over the phone. “Don’t you think they’re all so stale? They’re all so stale and there is very little excitement. And I don’t know why that is, but come on, we should be able to make it more exciting.”
When asked to elaborate, he brought up Frieze New York, the Armory Show rival presented by the British that sets up shop on Randall’s Island every May. He’s not really a fan. An article written for Artinfo.com upon the fair’s first-ever edition in 2012 made constant reference to what Genocchio described as a “strange odor of rotting meat or something of the sort pervad[ing] the aisles towards the back of the tent venue.”
“I’m on record saying that looking at art in a tent is like eating chicken from a bucket,” he said. “I mean what were we doing out there, in a tent on a toxic island in the middle of the East River?”
Art Basel, the world’s leading fair, was not spared either.
“Basel is the Marriott of art fairs—you know what you’re going to get, from room to room,” he said on the phone. “And that’s exactly what they’re going for, that Swiss efficiency, but it’s so boring. I honestly think New Yorkers can do a better fair.”
He said the New York art world has what he called “Balkanized chaos,” which prevents things from going as smoothly as they do in smaller cities that only host one major fair each year. But he explained that a fresh approach to a fair that Horowitz left in fine standing—the organization is profitable, Genocchio noted, and the wheels have been in motion for the impending edition, which opens March 3—will allow him some leeway as to how he can reshape the art fair experience.
“I’m a creative person and I’m kind of a wild guy,” he said. “I’m not someone that does something by the numbers—I have a vision. And I feel like there are so many great ideas locked up in the art world. The first thing you do is you go, shit, what do I do now? Then you sit down and have a drink and you say, how can I make this more memorable?”
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article implied that Genocchio was a full-time staff art critic for the New York Times, which was not the case. The article has been amended for clarification.