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Interview

October 17, 2007

Lisa Phillips

The New Museum of Contemporary Art opens its new building on the Bowery in New York's Lower East Side neighborhood on December 1. The new New Museum, which is seven-stories high and occupies 60,000 square feet, is the first museum ever to be built from the ground up in lower Manhattan, and it is already impacting the burgeoning art neighborhood that surrounds it. Paul Laster interviews Lisa Phillips, Toby Devan Lewis Director of the New Museum, about the new building, its inaugural exhibitions, the museum's innovative education program, and the evolving Lower East Side.

AK:  Since the New Museum first conceived its building program in 2000, contemporary art has taken galleries, auction houses, fairs, and other art institutions around the world by storm. Given this new atmosphere and appetite for contemporary art, can you tell us about the museum's ambitious transition from a comfortable SoHo kunsthalle to a world-class space?

LP:  The New Museum opened 30 years ago with the daring vision to present new art and new ideas, and it's crucial that we continue to challenge ourselves and break new ground. For most of our history, we've succeeded by flying under the radar. With this reopening, we'll have a bigger audience and, in many ways, a more visible identity… But we've always been a big small art museum — a place with a great potency. The New Museum will retain the nimbleness and responsiveness that have always been its hallmarks, but the new building and the expansion of our programming will allow us to realize more ambitious exhibitions and public programming.

AK:  The New Museum commissioned avant-garde architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the Tokyo-based partnership SANAA to design its new space. Why do you think the selection committee chose their building over the tough competition, which included London's Adjaye Associates and New York's Reiser + Umemoto?

LP:  Besides the sheer beauty, stunning innovation, and sensitive details, SANAA's Sejima and Nishizawa presented us with the perfect metaphor for our mission. The open, staggered volumes of the New Museum's new home speak to art's unpredictable, morphing nature; to the state of flux that is our world; and to the dynamic energy of contemporary life.

AK:  When it came down to selecting the construction site, how did you settle on an 8,000-square-foot parking lot on the Bowery as the right spot to build a 60,000-square-foot museum?

LP:  When board president Saul Dennison, a group of our trustees, and I visited the site for the first time in 2001, it just clicked. The Bowery was tough, infamous, and overlooked. It was geographically close and at the intersection of such lively neighborhoods. There's such a storied history of artists on the Bowery, and the New Museum has never shied away from tough art or issues of the day, so the neighborhood just felt right for a museum that presents work you wouldn't see anywhere else.

AK:  At the time the site was chosen, the Chelsea art community was on the rise. Did you anticipate that the Lower East Side might become a new art neighborhood?

LP:  The Lower East Side has always been an art neighborhood, and that's why we like it. It's been a creative center for decades — artists have always lived there and continue to do so. When we chose to build on the Bowery in 2002, we did want to serve as a catalyst and cultural magnet for the neighborhood. Now, there's a resurgence of cultural activity in the area; there are new galleries, shops, and restaurants opening near the museum in addition to the diverse organizations and establishments already there, like the theaters on 2nd street, Anthology Film Archives, and Bowery Poetry Club. During the museum's public opening celebration, Target 30 Free Hours, we will attract thousands to the LES. Over those 30 hours, the museum is free and open to the public — we're excited to drive and introduce new audiences to the area during and beyond this event.

AK:  While the new building is important to the growth of the New Museum, the curatorial staff seems equally vital. Since 2005, you have hired a talented team, including Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, and Massimiliano Gioni. What do they bring to the future of the organization?

LP:  Each of the curators brings a diverse background of experiences to the New Museum, and each has a clearly distinctive voice and approach, but their experiences and viewpoints complement each other.

AK:  How will your main inaugural exhibition, Unmonumental, unfold?

LP:  The entire curatorial team collaborated on Unmonumental to present an exhibition in four parts: sculpture, collage, sound, and Internet-based art. The exhibition begins as a sculpture show by 30 international artists and will morph in distinct phases as layers of the other media are added, so that the show itself grows and changes like an assemblage.

AK:  How do you foresee Unmonumental and the other inaugural exhibitions — YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES' new media installation, Ugo Rondinone's outdoor sculpture, and Jeffrey Inaba's Donor Wall — introducing the public to the new building?

LP:  These projects really showcase the wide array of the New Museum's program, and each highlights our enduring commitment to encouraging new work by a range of emerging and established international artists. We are also pleased to be the first US museum to present the work of YHCHI — a collective that is presenting some of the most cutting-edge work in contemporary practice, mixing text-based works with modern jazz scores. The exhibition is also a curatorial collaboration with Lauren Cornell, Director of Rhizome.org, an affiliate of the Museum and a partnership we will continue to expand in the future. Together with Unmonumental, the work of Ugo Rondinone, Jeffrey Inaba, and YHCHI encapsulate our philosophy of programmatic openness and fearlessness as well as our history as the home of socially committed contemporary art.

AK:  You're also launching Museum as Hub, a global institutional partnership under the leadership of Eungie Joo, your new Director and Curator of Education and Public Programs. That Joo's leaving her position as gallery director and curator of LA's REDCAT to join the New Museum indicates that Hub must be a dynamic project. What does it involve?

LP:  Museum as Hub is an educational/curatorial hybrid that will be a platform for international dialogue and a new model for institutional collaboration across cities and cultural institutions. It's also a cornerstone of the museum's programs in our new fifth-floor education center. The Hub alliance will be an important resource for the public to learn about what's going on in contemporary art around the world. Initiated by the New Museum in 2006, this partnership includes Insa Art Space (Seoul, South Korea); El Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo (Mexico City, Mexico); Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art (Cairo, Egypt); and Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven, the Netherlands). The intimate, flexible Hub area at the New Museum is conceived as a social space designed to engage audiences in individual and group experiences through multimedia workstations, exhibition areas, screenings, symposia, etc. The first Hub project will address the topic of the neighborhood, which to me is the perfect subject to think about as we move into our new home on the Bowery.

AK:  As the construction moves towards completion, what do you like best about the new New Museum?

LP:  It is light, open, and transparent and feels wonderful to be in. It opens up like a flower and has fairy dust sprinkled all over it. It's a beautiful space for art and a beautiful space to inhabit, but it's still rough — it has a rough beauty, and it's tough and elegant, delicate and strong. And it's almost finished!

The New Museum of Contemporary Art opens at noon on December 1. Free admission is sponsored by Target for the first 30 hours to commemorate the institution's 30-year anniversary.

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