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Public Exhibitionistby Robin Cembalest | Manhattan magazine | February 27, 2012
Launching your job as curator at an NYC landmark with a commentary on the world financial crisis—presented on a billboard over the West Side Highway—might seem foolhardy, but Cecilia Alemani likes to surprise. She hired conceptualist John Baldessari to produce “The First $100,000 I Ever Made,” an image of a gold certificate with the visage of Woodrow Wilson. Standing on the High Line, the park built on a ex-rail line, Alemani watched as crowds interacted with the work in December. “They took pictures pretending to hold the big note, making funny faces,” she says. “Then they started reading and realized it was actually a real bill, printed in 1934.”
That savvy sense of spectacle is what led the Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit that maintains and operates the 2-year-old park, to recruit Alemani to run its art programs. With 3.7 million visitors last year, says High Line co-founder Robert Hammond, it’s crucial that the work be accessible to a mainstream, polyglot audience—while still creating a dialogue with the Chelsea art community that supported it since its inception. “We didn’t want ‘plop art,’” he says, referring to the generic sculptures that often fill public spaces. “Cecilia has a serious background in art. And she has a playfulness that really fits in the High Line.”
A stylish and perpetually cheerful brunette from Milan, Alemani is a fixture at art-world events, often with her husband, New Museum Associate Director Massimiliano Gioni. Since earning her MA from Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies in 2005, Alemani has organized programs at venues ranging from MoMA PS1 to Bloomberg headquarters to Randall’s Island Park, where she’s curating projects at the Frieze art fair in May. But the High Line—which stretches from Gansevoort Street, in the increasingly meatless Meatpacking District, to 30th Street—is her biggest challenge yet. Now she’s mastering the regulations of NYC’s Parks & Recreation Department, which reviews each piece for content and structural feasibility. “The art has to be 70-mph-wind-resistant,” she notes. “It’s kind of shocking.”
Then there’s the 30-foot elevation, offering views into offices, apartments and, most famously, the Standard Hotel, whose exhibitionist guests have made news. That’s why Alemani chose for her second billboard the image of a huge, glaring eye—a self-portrait by Anne Collier, who photographed a picture of her own eye through a tray of developing fluid. “There’s so much voyeurism here,” Alemani says.
But as the curator looks around, she scans walls and roofs for slivers of private property she may borrow to enhance her programs. She’s already commandeered a wall at 22nd Street for the High Line Channel, which screens art films and videos. In the park itself, this spring brings Lilliput, a yearlong show of small and, depending on when they might be obscured by vegetation, invisible sculptures conceived as a “treasure hunt.”
On April 22 Fluxus pioneer Alison Knowles will reprise her classic “Make a Salad,” a 1962 work appropriate to the occasion—Earth Day—that also appeals to Alemani’s antic sensibility. “She’s going to mix the salad in a very gestural performative action, a spectacular gesture,” the curator says. “She’s going to throw it. And then everyone is going to eat it.”