Home Magazine MeetMe#12 | In conversation with Paola Antonelli

Kooness Team interviewed MoMA curator Paola Antonelli. We took the chance to get to know a little bit more about her past as well as an insight on her latest exposition Broken Nature, on show at the XXII Triennale Milano until the 1st of September 2019. Hurry up! Don't miss also the opportunity to discover more about other important personalities in the art field...take a glance at our MeetMe area.

I always use “surf” as a metaphor for this systematic problem: I have always been trained and ready, but then I also learned how to catch the waves that came unexpected. (Paola Antonelli)

Kooness attracts young readers including gallery owners and collectors. This is why we would like to have a brief chat about your journey that took place in a different historical period, which can still be an inspiration for many. Moreover, in Italy we are trying to build something for the future, but probably a "salvation", at least temporary, is still going abroad. Having left, after studying in Milan, you can be considered a perfect example. Why did you end up in New York in the late 1980s? Do you think that today it would be possible to follow the same path?

Of course, it is always possible in some ways. If I have to tell the truth: I don't think I've ever made any decisions. The only decision that I ever took consciously was to change university. I left Bocconi University to follow a different path. I was not happy to study Business, so I changed to Politecnico University and started Architecture. That was the only decision that changed my life and allowed me to seize my future opportunities. I worked very hard to get where I’m now. I have learned English thanks to my parents. I always knew how to seize opportunities when they came along my path, but It was not just luck. I had my first real opportunity, when I was studying at Bocconi and working for the page of the "Grande Milano Costume" of the Giornale as a freelancer, directed at the time by Giampaolo Martelli. During my fifth year of architecture, Cino Zucchi, who was my professor at the faculty of architecture, entered the classroom and asked who was interested in working at the Triennale to set up an exhibition. Despite the low pay, I said yes. The name of the exhibition was "Le città immaginate XVII" of 1987 and the curator was Vittorio Magnago. Here the curator was Deputy Director of Domus and since then I started to collaborate with the magazine… and one thing leads to another. I worked for four years at Domus and then moved with the art director of Domus at Abitare, as editor for design. Later, in 1989, during the International Design Conference of Aspen, when Italy was the Country invited, I met one of the artistic directors of the conference, the great Paolo Viti, head of Olivetti that later became director of Palazzo Grassi. A wonderful person. This time they offered me to be the coordinator from Italy. It was my first “American” job. I am telling you almost step by step because it has been, as I said, a sequence of events. In that period, 1989, I also got a crush for a guy from Los Angeles, so in August I went to LA with this excuse… and I started to work at UCLA. So I started to create connections in the US by teaching at the University in LA, and also I kept on collaborating for both Abitare and Domus. From 1990 to 1993, I was going back and forth from US to Milan. Since there weren’t direct flights at that time, I always stopped in New York where I interviewed architects and also people who worked at MOMA. In 1993, since I had a boyfriend in San Francisco, I kept on going around. I remember that one day, by reading the newspaper, I noticed a job posting from the MOMA for the position that I still fulfil today. I immediately replied. People from the Museum knew me as a journalist, not as a curator, even if I have already worked in a curatorship area. I am making it easy, I know. For sure, things do not happen by chance. I have always been “pushy” and ready to seize the right occasion. There is no room for complacency. During my first interview at MOMA, they did not have any money to buy me the flight ticket, so I asked to the interviewed when he would have been in Europe. He told me he would have gone to Paris, so I said that I would have been there too at the same moment. I studied a lot and, by taking him around the city, I managed to make a good impression. In February 1994, I started at MOMA. It has been 25 years and a half, now. Of course, there were ups and downs but, I have to admit, I was a little bit privileged. It is an extraordinary Institution. I worked hard, I would have never had such a path in Italy. 

To start in a place like the MOMA can actually be one of the best way. So, have you ever thought to be back to Italy to work?

At the beginning at the MOMA wasn’t that easy. I remember I went to cry at the restroom almost every day. To move in the USA was pretty hard then. But the idea to come back to Italy never came to my mind. There some significant issues that still exist in Italy: for instance, the ones related to gender discrimination or the ones regarding meritocracy. I’m not saying that in America there are not such issues but in Italy everything is certainly harder. It sounds like a cliché, but it is absolutely true. Meritocracy is useful when you work hard and well. 

So you just come here for personal reasons, right?

Yes, Italy is still good for the good part of life, not regarding work. I am lucky to still have my parents living in Italy. In Milano, after several years, the Triennale opened again its XXII International Exhibition. This event came with a duplicity of aspects: it has been a positive sign for both the Museum and culture in general, and for the fact that the curator was a woman. As you just said, indeed, in Italy we still suffer about this strong gender discrimination, especially in what concerns work and power, so this was a good signal for the city. I have to be clear that the Triennale as Exhibition was opened before, with the twenty-first. That was spread around, not only inside the Museum. In the USA sexual discrimination still exists too. And it will always exist until genres won’t exist anymore, this is my theory. When the fluidity between genders will prevail, then we will have equality.


Totems, Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2019. © Triennale Milano.
Photo by Gianluca Di Ioia


Installation view, Broken Nature 9. © La Triennale di Milano. Photo by Gianluca Di Ioia


How was your experience in working at la Triennale?

The experience was really good. And still is. I knew the smell of those walls. I started my career there, so it was great to be back there again with this leadership role. When Andrea Cancellato, the former President of la Triennale, asked me if I was interested in the project, I was deeply happy. I wanted to develop a project that I haven’t realized at MOMA in 2016 titled “Broken Nature”. It wasn’t a good moment for that show then, so I waited for this new amazing occasion where it seemed to be perfect. The experience was good: I had an extraordinary team with Ala Tannir, Laura Maeran, Erica Petrillo and Laurie Mandin. It was a good occasion to see how it works in Italy: there was a positive side in the high quality of production and craftsmanship, also last minute. For an important installation we managed to create it in a week, at MOMA it would have taken at least three weeks. And also more complicated sides, for instance the one regarding the decisional hierarchy inside the team was a little bit complicated: nobody moved without some permissions from above. Sometimes in Italy you do not have names and surnames, but titles. 

Are you talking about the Italian bureaucracy?

It is more concerning with the fact that here, in Italy, sometimes people are reluctant to take responsibilities if there is no approval from the top. There is a lack of autonomy that should be shared to working people with less important titles. 

Yes, most of the time is a responsibility fact but also, in a certain way, there is this shared mood that everybody has to be happy and agree on everything. However, Italian people are known to solve things at the very last minute, and to do it well. 

There is a lack of decision-making autonomy. It is difficult to take decisions in an environment where you always need an approval. 


Installation view, Broken Nature, 6. © La Triennale di Milano. Photo by Gianluca Di Ioia.


Can you define the Triennale as a dynamic environment? Did you work well or did you had any problems? 

Usually, institutions are a little bit problematic. I have to say that every person that worked with me was exceptional. The structure itself was not bad, the new direction is trying to launch the Triennale in a new way. Now, they are creating amazing programs, like with Umberto Angelini who makes amazing theatre performances.

When did you start working on the exposition “Broken Nature”?

I started working on it exactly one year ago. But I was called by Triennale two years ago and it took me a while to reconcile my work at MOMA with my the new one in Triennale. The work that I’m doing in Triennale is a collaboration with MOMA, in fact a part of the exposed artworks will go back to the Museum. I officially started working with my team one year and a half ago. 

Are you here in Milan now? 

Not really. I am going back and forth from New York because I am working on a new exposition for MOMA, plus we have the reopening of the Museum in September. I am happy to come back here sometimes to say hi to my team and to visit the exhibitions, to see if everything is doing well.

We both know that the situation in Italy is not that easy. And it’s becoming worse every day. That is why I still suggest to study abroad, absorb every information or knowledge and then come back to Italy. Would you suggest the same? And have you ever considered to come back to Italy?

I was very lucky for so many reasons. Number one, I was born in a wealthy family. When I decided to change University, my parents got mad but respected my choice. Number two, for my University I paid around 200 euros per year and there was no entry test. Number three, since I was a child, my parents pushed me to learn different languages. I was privileged since the beginning. There are people that don’t have this privilege. Some people need to work straight after high school because they need money. Nowadays, education is extremely expensive. Especially in the art world. It is a huge problem, because people cannot take any risk and, in a field like this, they should feel free to experiment more. Politicians don’t understand the value of art and there is another huge problem. Some EU politicians think that art privatization is the way to go, but it is not. The US is not the best one for us because it is counting on the charity of the privities. And it is not safe, it’s too uncertain. I always use “surf” as a metaphor for this systematic problem: I have always been trained and ready, but then I also learned how to catch the waves that came unexpected. I do not know if these waves are as much recurring and manageable today. Maybe you are right. It is more difficult. I do not know about the situation, if a person spent money to study Architecture maybe he/she doesn’t feel like throwing away the idea of being an Architect as I did. I hope, since there are not so many possibilities at the top, we can start to build at the bottom. For instance, I always said yes to interviews like this one. It means something if I can be able to give a sense of security to people who are interested in a career like mine. In the USA there is a way to approach things called “mentorship”. You take charge of few younger people and help them with advices and details that could help them. Practical and simple things, or philosophical too. Today, since the system is more complex, what is really important is the interpersonal relationship. New York people are generous and there is a strong education in the way to live the present. This is the most important thing for the present and future too. 


Written by Rossella Farinotti

Cover picture: Paola Antonelli portrait. 2016. Photo by Marton Perlaki

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