The New Museum in downtown New York turned 40 at the beginning of this year. P.S. 1, an upstart art center with similarly progressive roots, marked the same occasion in 2016. Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of the New Museum, has worked there since 2006; he also marshals projects on his own, one of which was curating the 2013 Venice Biennale. Alanna Heiss, the erstwhile director of P.S. 1—and later MoMA PS1, the moniker it adopted after merging with the Museum of Modern Art—founded the institution in the wake of an inaugural exhibition in 1976. (She also continues work with her nonprofit arts organization, Clocktower Productions, and, last year, curated “Forty,” an anniversary celebration of P.S. 1, featuring artists like Carl Andre, Nancy Holt, and Gordon Matta-Clark.)
On a chilly afternoon in December, ARTnews joined the two for lunch at Fanelli’s Cafe, a boisterous restaurant and bar that was one of the few haunts in SoHo when the New York art scene took new shape in the ’70s. For Gioni, steak frites and a Coke; for Heiss, gnocchi Alfredo with a beer. —Andy Battaglia
Alanna Heiss: Gnocchi, gnocchi—here’s how I know about gnocchi, you two Italian men. I used to have lunch with Leo Castelli about every two weeks. It was pretty regular, though not as regular as it could have been, because Leo had a very careful pattern of behavior. He was genteel, gallant, so he would have his lunches and drinks on a regular schedule with all his mistresses and wives, his friends, and his artists. Sometimes he would drop his artists because the other commitments were important. We were having one of our lunches and he turned to me and said, “You’re going to love it.” So I said to the waiter, “I’d like some guh-nocchi.” That was the beginning of—
Massimiliano Gioni: —a long friendship?
Heiss: Long, long, long. “Alanna, Alanna, you make me so happy. Don’t worry—I will be with you forever.” He joined my board.
Heiss: Yeah. It was impossible to have dealers on your board in those early years. It wasn’t against any rule, but it would be considered a bad sign of dealers having influence. But I put Richard Bellamy and Leo on my board because both were these constant voices in my ear, and they were very similar in what they admired. Bellamy was there years before Leo, but he was very gracious about Leo stealing his artists. I thought, “What the hell—everybody will see that we’re not going to help either Castelli or Bellamy.” They were never going to make a million dollars from anything I was showing. I felt it was defensible—and it was incredibly useful because they were experienced and had watched how people failed and succeeded. And it wasn’t just the gnocchi—Leo was a big adviser in my personal life. When my marriage broke up, he was extremely comforting.
Gioni: “Just take a mistress!”
Heiss: “Love means nothing. It’s a first marriage!”
ARTnews: How did the two of you first meet?
Gioni: I was working for Flash Art magazine, around 2000.
Heiss: The people hired by Flash Art were always interesting because they really liked art. I was interested in their peculiar hiring policy. And I needed my own Italian because a lot of things were happening in Italy. We had just merged with MoMA in 2000 and I couldn’t spend time anywhere, so I started picking up cool scouts. Sometimes scouts are collectors, sometimes they’re artists. Massimiliano at that time was a critic so—
Gioni: I could still write.
Heiss: He could still write. His brain hadn’t gone yet.
Gioni: That’s true. We met around 2000 because at that time I was assisting Francesco Bonami on a show that he was doing at P.S. 1, which was called “Uniform.”
ARTnews: Massimiliano, while you were growing up and learning about art in Italy, how prominent or not was the New York art world of the 1970s? Did that era hold a special place in your pantheon?
Gioni: I was born in ’73 and had three shocks around the time I was 15. One was Lucy Lippard’s book Pop Art (1966). I was born outside Milan in a town called Busto Arsizio that was not particularly bookish, but for some reason, they had Pop Art in the library, translated into Italian. Then, later, came Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1973) and Germano Celant’s Arte Povera (1969). Because I was living in the provinces, at that time before the internet, information happened through books and magazines. There was this idea [in all three books] that anything was possible. I remember pieces like Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots (1971–73), just rubber boots in the street—
Heiss: Antin was a very interesting artist. Nobody in New York liked her, they never did.
Gioni: Or Walter De Maria, the two lines in the desert [Mile Long Drawing, 1968]. But, you know, I had no knowledge at that time of SoHo and New York. I had knowledge that there was somebody named Vito Acconci . . . Then there was a big change in the ’90s—let’s say the generation of Matthew Barney. In 1993 there was the Venice Biennale, which had a lot of artists who would become the defining artists of the ’90s, and that was the first biennale that I went to see.
Heiss: That’s when I did a John Cage tribute—
Gioni: Which was beautiful. I didn’t know when I saw it that you had done it. The 1993 biennale was a watershed because, first of all, it was very large. The Aperto section was co-opted by a new generation of curators—Bonami was one, Jeffrey Deitch was one, Matthew Slotover from Frieze, and many others. It was culty in a way, [but] with a finger on the pulse.
Heiss: Achille Bonito Oliva [the director of the Venice Biennale that year] had very interesting principles. He was the first person who really did divide and conquer with a variety of individual curators. Achille subcontracted out—he always thought that more is more. By bringing other people to his ideas, he’s able to uncrack a lot more money and more activity. However, what he also did was invite many people to work in the same space. I worked for two years on a show for a space, but he also gave it to Robert Wilson. He also gave it to these Italian architects. Literally my things were all arriving and had to be sorted out. Wilson and I became friends because we had to work it out.
Gioni: Wilson was a catalyst of a new global scene. If you ask me what my pantheon was, that’s when I started thinking about art more seriously. I took notice of people who were older than me but were part of my world. The people in the Lucy Lippard and Arte Povera books—they were heroes but from a different planet.
Heiss: When you observed that organizationally as a young man, did you make any decisions about your future and how you would handle things if you were in charge?
Gioni: Not in ’93. I was 19. At that point my future plan was to specialize in Old Masters because I thought there was no possibility of making a living with contemporary art. I continued to be involved with contemporary art on my own. And at that point, I had come back from Canada, where I’d lived for two years—
Heiss: Why were you in Canada?
Gioni: I went to a special school where all the students were on scholarship from more than 80 countries around the world.
Heiss: That’s interesting as a first way to look at how things were in North America. It’s easy to learn the language, but it’s not so easy to learn psychology or work habits, which have always been very different in Italy than the rest of the world. Leading to more funny stories at the Venice Biennale. . . .
ARTnews: Alanna, in the ’70s, how similar or not did you consider P.S. 1 and the New Museum? How were they related and unrelated?
Heiss: New Museum was ’77 and P.S. 1 was early ’76, which made us a key year older. That’s important because what Marcia Tucker [the founder of New Museum] was trying to do was such a different thing that there was, at the time, no real connection.
ARTnews: Different how?
Heiss: I came back to the United States in ’71 and opened the Clocktower Gallery in ’72. I had been living in England, and when I got back, I brought a lot of courage with me. I’d seen all the Kunsthalles. I knew how there had been shows of our artists. I knew our artists, like Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman. I had this knowledge that hadn’t been beaten out of me, and I came back to the starry city and started organizing shows. I went to all the museums with projects that had to do with my usual chants: saving money and showing art, together. I constructed really elaborate projects to show art in storage. This was a time in New York when the city was desperate to decentralize into Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, and I had money behind me. Museums really didn’t want to do that, and when I finally understood how much they didn’t want to, that set my course for why I could not work with museums.
ARTnews: You worked in a lot of different spaces before settling into P.S. 1.
Heiss: I had five different spaces that I was experimenting with. The Clocktower was the biggest and the oldest, and the only one I kept. By ’75, I was offered the opportunity to start an art center and I made the decision, bizarrely, for Long Island City. The building was huge—it was a double-size school—and it was close to the water, so you could stand out on the street [and see the skyline] and know where you were. In the boroughs, you could get lost.
I decided to give up on my little spaces all over. They were guerrilla efforts, and I wanted [instead] to be a grown-up radical. A grown-up radical starts her or his own thing and sees it through, takes the criticism from other radicals and tries to solve problems instead of marching. I had wings and a halo—everything I needed—so I decided to build an anti-museum. That’s what P.S. 1 was. It had nothing to do with alternative spaces. It didn’t have anything to do with galleries, and nothing to do with helping poor artists, like Artists Space. The last thing in the world I would do was not show an artist because she already had a gallery. I wanted to have the strength of New York artists and the dominant artists in the world—absolutely, no question, full hand raised.
ARTnews: How did you see Marcia Tucker’s aim as distinct from yours?
Heiss: She wanted to copy the museum [concept] exactly but have it be a more important museum. She was relating to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and other figures in the past who started over. So she made a template for a museum, which included a collection, docents. She kept trying to bang her new museum into some sort of shape, like a spaceship. She had a lot of things that I didn’t have, but mostly things I didn’t want. Everything I had, she didn’t want, except for one thing: space. She had no space; I had a lot of space. In that sense, we were completely mismatched. Strangely, and sadly, we never talked much. I liked her very much, and I thought of her well. But she had so little to do with the artists I was working with. She wasn’t producing sculpture or producing big shows. She was involved with a classical museum of contemporary art.
ARTnews: Both are now non-collecting institutions. In what ways is that an asset and also maybe a liability?
Heiss: When Marcia started, she emphatically had it be a collecting institution. I was emphatically “no.” I can’t do the collecting thing. It’s just not in my blood. We would have had a phenomenal collection, had we done it.
Gioni: Maybe we would have been buried by the sense of responsibility. What distinguishes us [both], I think, is not so much collecting or not. But both institutions have been focused on exhibition making—a certain type of exhibition making where the exhibition and the content overlap much more than they do [elsewhere]: the exhibition as an experience, not a display of discrete objects. At P.S. 1, the space itself was so present and so radical that you couldn’t just borrow some painting and put it on the wall. It was more about making environments.
Heiss: Let me tell you a critical difference that does not reflect so beautifully on me: Marcia, in spite of her museum fetish, was incredibly political. She was a committed political figure of the ’60s and early ’70s variety. She believed she could make a difference, as a person and as a leader. She would get behind causes and pull the museum up to them, whatever cause she supported. She was particularly interested in feminist activity and feminist theory, which she bonded and represented in shows at the New Museum. She was the first on the block to show women doing this and women doing that. She was an icon to many disadvantaged or marginalized groups. She also had a lot of other interests: she had strong connections to the major tattoo artists in New York City, and she did shows of that. She also had a genuine interest in singing. Usually, when you hear a museum director or curator sing, you go the other way because there’s not a single piece of evidence of one person who is a good singer—
ARTnews: Do both of you fall in line with that trend?
Gioni: I was a singer when I was a teenager, for a few bands.
Heiss: I went to a conservatory of music, so I know what bad singers really are.
ARTnews: Massimiliano, the New Museum was an upstart project at the beginning, but now it’s an institution. How much do you think of legacy and historical context from an operational standpoint?
Gioni: There is a quote from Claude Lévi-Strauss: he said—or this is how I remember it—“There is no such a thing as a history of something, only a history for someone.” In the past few years since the museum opened [on the Bowery], a lot of people say what our history was, and each has their own interpretation and their own fantasy. It’s interesting to hear from Alanna that, in her mind, the New Museum from the beginning had an institutional aspiration. I think many people have idealized the idea of the New Museum being scrappy. In other words, I think the combination of the alternative and the mainstream was more complicated then than people now understand. Going back to music, I grew up intellectually in the ’90s, so I come from a generation that witnessed the end of what used to be the underground. Two defining moments in my life were Sonic Youth signing with Geffen and Nirvana leaving Sub Pop.
ARTnews: Defining how?
Gioni: There is a moment in the ’90s when the idea of the underground and the mainstream completely dissolved. I’m nostalgic about it, but I can also say, sadly, that Kurt Cobain was taking the same drugs before and after Geffen, and the music was also great before and after, and he reached out to more people. I see the New Museum today, as it has emerged, as going through that transformation. It is a sort of alternative institution that I hope has its heart in the right place, has the right agendas, and has an interest in different voices still very much alive that can speak to a larger audience less attached to an idea of an underground that doesn’t exist anymore. That is more complicated than a certain nostalgia wants to assert.
ARTnews: How does that affect the work you do there?
Gioni: I want to keep making shows that are unexpected or that scramble the canon, but I also want to be able to play in the same field as the other big institutions. I think the spectrum has to be wider. Your position is more complicated than being just an outsider.
ARTnews: The theme for this issue is underrated artists. Both of you have championed artists who might be considered underrated, or at least under-acknowledged. How much do you think reception to that status has changed? For instance, Massimiliano, it’s hard to imagine the shock and surprise that greeted the outsider focus of your 2013 Venice Biennale happening the same way again.
Gioni: Since I did that show, every time an auction house now does an outsider art sale, they quote me. It was an unexpected presence that gets assimilated very quickly, and that cycle happens faster and faster now.
Heiss: Defiantly, I won’t play the underrated game.
ARTnews: How about ‘insufficiently appreciated’?
Heiss: I still won’t play. With 130 rooms from 1976 on, we were able to show not just every artist in the world but every artist who thought they were an artist, everybody who went to school in art. We could show for 40 years, but never was the emphasis on anything having to do with social welfare—artists without a gallery, without a friend. Maybe Henry Geldzahler did it. He was a curator for a while for me when he was bounced out of the Met, under the proviso that he never come to P.S. 1. It turned out we had the same dream: he would do shows for P.S. 1 but would never have to go to the office, and for me I never wanted him in the building! [Laughs]
I think you hit on it a little earlier with Massimiliano, whose strength turns out to be, among other things, interesting puzzle shows that help answer a question or bring out new information. Everybody wants to do that, but not many people can. He’s correctly rated [highly] for doing very good shows. That’s what we all are: show makers—not collectors, not gallerists. You start asking yourself, “Why do you do this show or that show?” You do it not to prove a social welfare point or an exclusionary point, but because you’re looking around and saying, “What is it that people need to see, where is the hole in what they’re not seeing? What has not been at MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Whitney?”
Gioni: I thought about that when I saw the “Forty” show you recently did. In your first shows at P.S. 1, many of those people were the most important artists in their moment in a certain community in New York. People who now look like they were underrated were actually the key players in a community that was so small and specific that the rest of the world didn’t notice.
Heiss: When I did the “Forty” show, I thought that I should do artists who were teaching me how to think. The voices artists were hearing were, as Massimiliano states, hugely critical voices for everyone. These were the top artists for us. I would be interested in seeing a New Museum 40th show, something about what Marcia was up to. She was so far ahead politically. She knew some of the Weathermen—that’s how far out she was.
Gioni: I don’t know if I want to go back to the underrated, but it is a preoccupation in my shows that I also found in your anniversary show. The greatness of that show was that you—and I’m always saying this of Germano Celant—showed a time through your peers. It’s remarkable because not only were they great artists—they were also your friends, your companions. I don’t know if it’s just my character or my moment in time or my generation, but I think my role is less to become a catalyst of my peers—even though I’ve shown many of them—and more to look elsewhere, or to look in the blind spot. I always say I don’t make shows of people I know—I make shows of people I want to get to know. And that includes dead artists, outsider artists. I don’t know if that has to do with my character. Maybe I’m less gregarious—
Heiss: No, no, no—you’re not a founding director. You have the advantage of coming on at full strength. I have a lot of admiration for how you were able to come in and shape your own destiny, because the museum was already formed.
ARTnews: As the borders around art expand and the ability to look into blind spots increases, how have the ways you look changed? How do you find what you’re looking for?
Gioni: One rule of thumb is, if I don’t know something, it’s usually a good sign that I should. But that’s something I learned about New York—for all the slamming of how bad New York is and how great it used to be, there is still a curiosity here that is unparalleled. In New York I can do a show of obscure artists from Lebanon and people come and get engaged. There is an openness to people here that is exciting. In many other places, people react to what they don’t know by turning their back. In New York, what is unknown is embraced.
Heiss: When you’re starting out, one rule I always had is that I tried never to do a show with an artist that I wouldn’t have dinner with.
Gioni: The question is: would you still have dinner with them after you have done the show?! [Laughs]
Heiss: As a social person who curates, I don’t have much business working with artists if I don’t like them. Harald Szeemann, who I admired greatly and followed around and regard as my main teacher—he was the coolest. I got to go to studios with him, not say anything, just watch, and that was incredible. I think Massimiliano has—this is very flattering, and I’ll try not to say anything nice the rest of the time—a little bit of the Szeemann touch in that artists like him and want to work with him. My dialogue is almost completely based on informal situations where we are doing something that an artist has wanted to do but hasn’t because it’s not right for a gallery or an institution. For Massimiliano, he’s trying to organize around principles that are formal in nature—
Gioni: Or narrative, in a sense. Sometimes I find myself gravitating too much toward existing works because I can feed them into a choreography a little more, but—
Heiss: The next rule is, no matter where you are in the planning of a show, if at any time it would be better as an article or a book: stop.
ARTnews: What excites you most about art now?
Gioni: The most exciting thing for me is that I just managed to buy three issues of Heresies, the famous feminist magazine from the ’70s. That excites me more than going to Miami [for the Art Basel fair], where I just was. One thing that excites me about where I am in my career is that I can care about things that excite me and feel there is still a lot of vitality and energy that can be contagious. For as much as we are now a mainstream museum, what excites me is to think that maybe a teenager comes to a show and his or her life is changed in the sense that he or she would think, “Wow, this is what I want to care about.” I don’t think of shows needing to make certain attendance numbers. I think, individually, they have an impact on certain people, and what will that impact mean in 20 years? I don’t want to sound pompous about it, but I’m sure Bruce Nauman saw some shows when he was a kid, and I would love to know that maybe, in 40 years, the Bruce Nauman of tomorrow came to one of our shows.
Heiss: Bruce Nauman went out with my college roommate. He was the bad boyfriend. He would ride his motorcycle to come and get her. He looked like a very gangly sort of James Dean. Anyway, I’m curious, in terms of your future, how it works between you and Cecilia [Cecilia Alemani, director and chief curator of High Line Art and also Gioni’s wife], who is also so talented. It’s common for an artist and curator to be together—never pleasant but common—but two curators together is more of an oddity.
Gioni: I made a rule for myself never to date an artist because I thought it would be impossible. Not because artists are impossible—even though they are—but because I thought it would be too miserable. I almost thought it would have been impossible to date or live with a person who does my job, but when I met Cecilia, it feels in a strange way like it makes our life easier and more complete. On Sundays we can go with the baby to MoMA, and it doesn’t feel like any of us are sacrificing anything—except maybe the baby.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 32 under the title “Alanna Heiss & Massimiliano Gioni.”