New Curator on the Block: Alex Gartenfeld
by brett sokol
“New Yorkers always feel invited,” chuckles Alex Gartenfeld when asked about the constant stream of strangers knocking on his Manhattan apartment’s front door, all waiting to be ushered inside. It was 2009, a year after he had graduated from Columbia University, and Gartenfeld had already landed an impressive job as the online editor at Art in America and Interview magazines. Still, he was itching to flex his curatorial muscles. These days, access is hardly an issue—Gartenfeld recently arrived in South Florida as the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) new curator and wunderkind envoy to the continent-hopping culturati. But back in ’09, museums weren’t exactly keen on turning over their exhibition space to a young man who was still such an untested figure.
Gartenfeld’s solution? Turning the Lower East Side apartment he and his then-roommate shared into the gallery Three’s Company. The pair stuffed artwork by a fresh crop of talent into the living room, the bedroom, and anywhere else it would fit. “It was a really small space,” Gartenfeld laughs. After a year, his roommate was burnt out on the notion of sharing a home with bulky sculptures and curious visitors. Not Gartenfeld. He had just received an insider’s taste of the contemporary art whirl—and wanted more.
With a 2010 move to a Chelsea apartment, the West Street Gallery was born, and a certain genteel slice of the city’s art denizens found a new clubhouse. Little more than a year after it opened, Michael Miller wrote in The New York Observer that “West Street has already become a kind of destination…. There are lots of 20-somethings, but among them are more established figures, like artist Rita Ackermann, who has been in a group show, and collectors, like real estate developer Phil Aarons and his wife, Shelley. It is the quintessential post-recession art space, as much the product of connections with key people and institutions as the outgrowth of a youthful scene.”
Fast-forward to 2013 and it’s easy to see why MOCA hired Gartenfeld, obviously viewing the 26-year-old—and his facility for networking—as a perfect fit for continuing the work of former Executive Director and Chief Curator Bonnie Clearwater in carving out a space for MOCA in the global art world.
“I naturally gravitated to what Bonnie was doing at MOCA,” Gartenfeld explains. “Very few museums in the United States do what MOCA does, which is to focus on emerging art and push the careers of new artists. I wanted to spend my time collaborating with artists on projects, and an institution like MOCA is the best way to do that…. My role here will be to be on the ground and help artists develop their voices.”
For now, Gartenfeld is still exploring the city and loath to talk specifics since, like a key Wall Street analyst touting a stock, his curatorial choices can help launch careers. So who are the new Miami artists he’s hoping to bring to a larger audience? “It would be irresponsible to name them,” he responds coyly. “There’s a lot of young talent in Miami, and it’s an interesting moment internationally for people to look at the work that’s here.”
Some would argue that the continued emphasis on “young talent” comes at the expense of other gifted, more seasoned Miami artists who’ve been shunted out of the spotlight simply because their pre-Reagan-era birthdates make them a tougher sell in today’s art marketplace.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s just the art world,” Gartenfeld offers. “I would say that markets in general fetishize youth. Western culture, in general, since the dispersal of the Native Americans, is not known for respect for its elders.” MOCA, Gartenfeld believes, can help change that attitude. “The institutional role can do what the market doesn’t do—work with artists of merit of all ages,” he notes, adding that a recent visit to the nearby Bridge Red Studios left him a big fan of that alternative space’s showcasing of currently unrepresented midcareer Miamians. Might some of those Bridge Red figures pop up in a future MOCA show? “You’ll just have to wait and see,” he says wryly.
Gartenfeld is a bit more forthcoming about “Love of Technology,” his group show opening at MOCA later this month, which gathers artists working with—and exploring the nature of—technology. “The message is always ambivalent. I’m not a ‘fear’ person, but you can’t look at the rise of the machines with a blank slate,” he argues. “People are still holding on to fantasies of a seamless integration of technology and the body. An object is not merely an object, but something with its own laws and interactions with people in a complex way.”
Unconvinced? Take a look at the nearest iPhone. Is it a tool for unfettered communication or for all-encompassing surveillance? And in a society whose citizens freely hand over their personal details to data-mining, profit-seeking corporations, is there a difference? Such a notion is bound to stir up emotions among MOCA visitors. “It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if people left a museum feeling uncomfortable,” Gartenfeld counters confidently. “Love of Technology” opens September 27 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami, 305-893-6211; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
photography by nick garcia; alexander tamargo/wireimage.com (hack); courtesy of the collection of the museum of contemporary art, north miami (miller)