While many are gearing up for summer vacations, Peter Eleey is settling in to his new job as head curator at MoMa PS1 Contemporary Art Center. His beach escape this summer will be the courtyard of the museum, designed for its Saturday “Warm-Up” art parties.
Though he has only had time to set up his voicemail and grow accustomed to his desk, as the first full-time curatorial hire since founder Alanna Heiss retired in 2007, Eleey has his work cut out for him.
The museum’s latest show, “Greater New York,” a survey of the contemporary art scene, was panned by critics, even called “Lesser New York” by some. While the negative reviews have not shaken the institution, many are looking to Eleey to bring fresh ideas that “Greater New York” lacked.
Some criticized the show for its “disaffected negativity,” claiming it failed to provide new ways of looking at well-documented social problems, but according to Eleey, most contemporary art does not aspire to spark progressive action. “I think there was a period that has since passed where art and social change had a close relationship. That was the art that people bought, that museums showed. I don’t think that people care less. There are certainly people who are interested in making work in that vein, and who believe art can be used for that purpose, but the country changed and cultural attitudes changed in the last few decades,” he said.
However, Eleey is not interested in creating or following the zeitgeist. “I am more interested in thinking about things with the help of art,” he said.
His past meditations have lead him most recently to curate “The Talent Show,” an exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, focused on the relationship between government surveillance, social networking and reality TV. The show will likely make its way to PS1 come December and deals — even if unconsciously — with the mood of the moment, as Facebook and “The Bachelor” compete for our attention and closed-circuit cameras make their way under the Christmas tree.
“Often I am reading or thinking about things … I don’t think of it related to art or connected to art in any way shape or form, but at the same time you’re always thinking about art looking at art and talking to artists,” Eleey said, explaining how he conceives of shows.
“I try and figure out why I come back to certain pieces again and again. It was actually through certain works of art that I realized this interest in Facebook and surveillance were two sides of the same coin. It resulted in the show that’s up right now in Minneapolis.”
Graduating from Yale with a degree in art history, Eleey did not want to be a curator. He started out as many do, as an artist. “I was not interested in curation. It always seemed like a secondary profession to me — artists make the work,” he said. Originally from Philadelphia, Eleey lived in New York for two years and painted, working odd jobs to get by. However, “I realized with the help of some convincing from other people that [as a curator] was the way I thought much more naturally than as a painter.”
Eleey needed a career change. “I guess I got to the point as a painter where I wasn’t really satisfied, and it was also isolating.”
As a curator, Eleey gets to discuss art with artists and conceive of projects collaboratively. He enjoys the social aspect of curation. “There are so many great metaphors for curation; one of them is a dinner party host, another is a zoo keeper,” he said.
While most of Eleey’s projects have gone off without a hitch, the curatorial process is not as orderly or precise as it seems. “I think most people don’t realize this about curation, but you don’t have much time with the objects before you’ve created the show … Nothing’s ever totally right. Sometimes you take works out of the box and they look much bigger or smaller in the space than you imagined. It’s not unlike if you’ve ever shopped for a couch, or you paint your house, you pick a color and you put it on the wall and it looks different.”
Even more exciting and frightening for Eleey are collaborations in which artists and curators conceive of work together. Eleey has participated in his fair share through his work at Creative Time, a New York City-based organization that partners with artists to create public projects, and as an independent curator, with his hands in multiple mediums. If it’s art, Eleey has worked with it, from video to dance and from sculpture to photography — he does not shy away from any genre, though he admits he has yet to attend PS1’s “Warm Up” art party. That will change July 24 when Eleey will hold court in the museum’s courtyard for DJ JD Samson and the group MEN.
Eleey’s variety of experience and his seemingly calm demeanor make him well- suited to lead PS1, an institution he admires. “I look at PS1 as something that combines that entrepreneurial spirit with the trappings and resources and space that we associate with some the best museums,” Eleey said.
The museum is glad to have him as well. “Eleey has emerged as one of the most talented curators of his generation. He is thoughtful and inventive, and has demonstrated a strong commitment to artists in his work. I am thrilled to have him join us …” said museum director Klaus Biesenbach in a statement announcing Eleey’s appointment.
As for what Eleey plans to do first, he doesn’t yet know. “Give us some time, we’re still warming up,” he said.
When: Saturdays from 2-9 p.m.
Tickets: $15 or free with proof of LIC residency; bring mail.
Where: MoMa PS1 Contemporary Art Center , 22-25 Jackson Ave.