Poetics of Place: Cecilia Alemani On Curating for the High Line | lpstrkl.com

Poetics of Place: Cecilia Alemani On Curating for the High Line

Cecilia Alemani has been curator of High Line Art since 2011. The public park and former New York Central Railroad is, as noted on its website, “the only park in New York City with a dedicated multimedia contemporary art program.” Though it is perhaps most often frequented by tourists and passersby looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, it trails alongside the Whitney, the West Village and several Chelsea art galleries, making it an important parallel space in New York’s art scene.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter


 See all of our newsletters

“I wanted to think about the notion of public art differing from a bronze sculpture that magically lands on a corporate plaza,” Alemani told Observer. “I wanted to think about pushing those borders and those edges to include many mediums.” Along with the distinctive sculptures scattered around the park, High Line Art exhibits temporary, site-specific art, including occasional video screenings and live performances. One recent such boundary-pushing work on the High Line was by artist and choreographer Matty Davis, who performed Die No Die (The High Line).


Alemani’s focus on site is central to her work as a curator and is often the starting point for her exhibitions, which is logical given that spaces inform much of what we see and how we see it, especially when it comes to art. Pamela Rosenkranz’s neon pink tree, for instance, stands boldly on a bridge above 30th Street—a bright contrast to the monotony of glass buildings in that area and a reminder that art can be part of a landscape. “The site means both the actual space, but it can be the city where the space is, it can be a culture,” Alemani explained.

SEE ALSO: Mary Rozell On the Art of Collecting for Corporations

Alemani has served as artistic director of the 59th Venice Biennale and curated the Italian Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale. She also curated last year’s Tetsuya Ishida exhibition at Gagosian and “Making Their Mark” featuring works from the Shah Garg Collection, among many other notable shows. Those familiar with her work will see that beyond site and place, her curation is also inspired by literature and theory. She studied aesthetics in Italy before moving to the States to pursue a master’s degree in curation and is continuously informed by her theoretical and philosophical background.

Observer recently spoke with Cecilia Alemani about her sources of inspiration, the advantages and disadvantages of curating a space with no walls or ceilings and what she’s aiming for next.

How did you first discover curation was your medium?

I’m Italian of origin, and I studied philosophy at a university in Italy. I had a major in aesthetics and art history, so I kind of realized that I could apply everything that I learned—that was more academic or more theoretical—to one job, which was the job of the curator. I also took a class when I had just graduated from the Tate Modern which gave me a sense that working with artists could be a profession and not just a passion. So, I decided to come to the States. I started a Masters Program in Curatorial studies at Bard. Back then, it wasn’t new, but it was one of the very few curatorial programs around. When I graduated, I decided to start freelancing, mostly working with other curators as an assistant, and also doing my own things. In the beginning, I came to curating from a much more academic perspective, since in Italy I never had an internship at a museum, I was really dedicating my time to studying.

How would you define the art you curate for the High Line? How is it to work with public art?

When I started working at the High Line, I wanted to think about the notion of public art differing from a bronze sculpture that magically lands on a corporate plaza. I wanted to think about pushing those borders and those edges to include many mediums. At the High Line, we do performances, we show video art, but also we push the artists to think outside the box and to not get too tied up with issues of permanence and temporality—using different materials that are not just bronze and cement. Mostly pushing their practice to imagine new possibilities that are not just the ones that we imagine when we think of public art.

The High Line has the fortune of being closed at night, which allows us also to do things that are maybe more experimental when it comes to materials because we normally don’t have vandalism or we don’t have people who come to your piece and want to knock it off. That allows, for example, a piece with adobe to exist, which of course is not necessarily a material that you would see in North America. We’ve managed to have this great piece by Gabriel Chaile up for a year, which of course, being on the street level, probably would have been destroyed very quickly.

Can you tell me more about the performances and the art you curate that isn’t sculpture?

As part of our program, we like to support artists that don’t necessarily make sculptures. They work on time-based or live choreographies. Since the beginning, we’ve staged maybe two or three performances every year. The most recent one, which was curated by my colleague Taylor Zakarin, was a performance by dancer Matty Davis. He, as often happens, wanted to create a score for the High Line. So the performance was itinerant. We started from the very south end of the High Line and moved north, which means not just the dancers moved north, but everyone together. Everyone who was there to see the performance, which, of course, is a bit of a challenge because we are a very busy park, but it functioned very well. It was a choreography with six dancers who would activate spots along the High Line. It was hardcore, intense, body movements combining this fairly violent approach to their own bodies with moments of love and embrace. It was a beautiful performance.

I’m curious about whether and how you feel your curation has changed over time.

The High Line requires a very specific form of curating because I don’t have a ceiling above my head or walls to hang things. While I try to be diverse and also welcome different art forms, it is a public space. It’s outside and there are winds or it rains, so it definitely has advantages and disadvantages. I think when I curate other projects, I often start from the site, because I think that’s something that I’ve learned a lot on the High Line. Even when I do a more traditional show in a museum or a gallery, I do think of the connections between the artist and that specific site. The site means both the actual space, but it can be the city where the space is, it can be a culture. So, thinking about what the connections are with what surrounds us and that, you know, changes all the time because we get to work in many different places.

Speaking of other cities, I saw that you were named the curator of the 2025 SITE Santa Fe Biennial. 

That’s a very good example. That biennial has been around for thirty years—it’s one of the oldest biennials in the United States that is not connected to a collecting institution. It’s promoted by a museum that is called SITE, which of course raises questions such as ‘What is the notion of site and what does a site mean in New York versus New Mexico?’ and about the complexities that exist beyond that notion. The show is not about the site, but I think those are all considerations that I take into account as I start working with the artists, and Santa Fe is a very culturally rich but also quite complex site that is made by the different cultures that have been on the land for millions of years. All the different layers and strata of this architecture and population. Those are all great inspiration points when you do a show. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do yet. We certainly have a connection with the location where the exhibition is, and the connection might be, at first, very differently interpreted. But I’m trying to do a lot of research on the space itself and the site and the city and the people.

Is there anything else that inspires you or informs your work?

I try to read a lot of literature from each place. It’s always an inspiration for titles. I think we’re so lucky that we have this incredible art form that is literature. It is, at least for me, less and less appreciated just because we are always attached to our phones nowadays. The privilege of being able to read and immerse yourself in literature and poetry from these different places is something that always inspires me. I would say, in addition to that, I’m always trying to spend time reading artists’ writings. In particular, if there is an artist in the show or maybe an artist from a community that might not be in the show but has done writings, I think that’s always a very nice way of understanding the culture of a place. Having not just an artistic point of view, but also a literary point of view, is always quite refreshing.

The Ins and Outs of Commissioning a Work of Art

The commission conversation often starts with, or gets around to, a client telling the...

How Mega-Collector Ronald Perelman Offloaded Nearly $1B in Artwork

Ronald Perelman, the billionaire investor known for his vast art collection, has in recent...

Why (and How) Gallery and Museum Collections Management Went Digital

Before she opened her gallery in 1999, art dealer Debra Force worked at New York’s Hirschl...

- A word from our sponsor -



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here