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New Museum’s Studio 231 Inspires Experimentation

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Photo credit: New Museum.

The New Museum has a way of attracting publicity and crowds for its big exhibitions. The recently-closed “Carsten Holler: Experience,” complete with a two-story slide and a sensory deprivation tank, brought more than 100,000 visitors through the doors in the past several months. It was easily the museum’s most popular show in its 35-year history.

But other projects seem to keep a far lower profile, including the reasonably new experimental space, “Studio 231,” located on the ground floor of the old commercial and residential building next door to the Nu Mu’s Bowery headquarters. Recently we visited the space, where Berlin-based artist Enrico David is currently being featured, and chatted with Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s associate director and director of exhibitions, about Studio 231 (he was also named director of visual art for the Venice Biennale today).

The museum purchased the six story building, the former home of a restaurant supply business, in 2008 for $16 million. “It felt like a good investment and we also, in the very long term, did not want to have a tall building next to the museum,” Gioni explained. But another important factor was the museum’s desire for future expansion. That future came sooner rather than later.

Photo: New Museum.

There’s no doubt the move to the Lower East Side in 2007 changed perceptions about an institution that started more than three decades ago with no permanent exhibition space but quickly developed a reputation as an organization willing to take a lot of risks. Gioni elaborated: “There were some people who felt, maybe, the museum had become less of an experimental place. I think we are still very much an experimental place, but we wanted to circle back to our own history. We wanted not to forget literally where we came from, and where we came from was a space (in Soho) very similar to Studio 231.”

The program was inaugurated last fall by British performance artist Spartacus Chetwynd. The Enrico David show, which is composed of a series of striking, vivid and sometimes unsettling portraits, is the second installment of the Studio 231 series. In both cases, the artists are well-known overseas but have never had major New York exhibitions. The idea, Gioni said, is to invite artists to conceive projects specifically for the white box space and to take some chances. “Because it is literally a storefront, it is more accessible,” Gioni said. “We wanted artists to think of the space as in dialogue with the street and an extension of their studio. Things can be tried. It is not a finished environment.”

Photo: New Museum.
Enrico David. Photo: thelodownny.com.

In the past few years, of course, the independent gallery scene has blossomed on the Lower East Side, in no small part due to the New Museum’s presence. In opening a street-side space, is Nu Mu trying to reflect what’s happening around it? Gioni responded to this question by noting that the LES (unlike Chelsea) “is not an art neighborhood that sort of secludes itself, where everything is a gallery.” He continued, “there is an integration between galleries and all types of businesses that makes it a much richer ecosystem and I think that is something we wanted to indirectly acknowledge with our presence (at 231 Bowery).”

The New Museum is certainly not oblivious to the changes happening in the neighborhood or to the misgivings some people have about the organization’s role as a “gentrifying agent (Gioni’s words).” While suggesting that the reality is a bit more complicated, he argued that Studio 231 “keeps us rooted to the ground literally and metaphorically.” Such artists as James Rosenquist, Robert Indiana, and Will Insley have called 231 Bowery home over the years. Some artists are still living and working on the upper floors. There’s even an artist participating in the upcoming Triennial (“The Ungovernables,” opening February 15) using a vacant apartment as a makeshift studio. While not part of the original plan, Gioni said, “it’s an exciting development to know that more and more we can support artists not only by displaying their work but also by acting as a sort of production facility.”

What’s next at Studio 231? Coming up in May, Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg will launch a new multimedia project called “The Parade,” originally organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The ambitious sculptures will make up a kind of “Noah’s Ark” in the gallery space, Gioni said.

As we finished up our conversation, Gioni smiled at the final groups of museum visitors taking in the “Carsten Holler Experience,” many of whom were experimenting with the now-famous upside down goggles that were part of the show. “I’m smiling,” Gioni said, “because people were willing to engage. We drilled two holes in the floor. We followed the lead of the artist… I measure our success — when we are able to go as far as we could and as far as the artist wanted us to go.”

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