Q&A with MoMA Curator Paola Antonelli

Rachael Roth

Paola Antonelli is the senior design curator at MoMA in Manhattan and has been with the museum for nearly three decades. An architect by trade, Antonelli has brought to life thought-provoking installations through her curatorial work, including the recent Broken Nature exhibit, which focused on restorative design and our relationship and impact to nature. She hosts MoMA Research & Development salons, a forum for presentations and discourse around topics broad (dogs) and specialized (“gastrodiplomacy”).

Photo: Marton Perlaki

Has your creative process changed a lot this past year?
Paola Antonelli:
I’ve always seen my curatorial practice as being everywhere; the gallery is just one place. When the pandemic happened, after the first moment of being a deer in headlights and trying to figure out what was going on, I was watching Fat Joe doing his Instagram Lives, and that’s where I got the idea [for Design Emergency, an Instagram Live series Antonelli hosts with Alice Rawsthorn, exploring the role of design in a post-Covid world].

Do you have a preferred online platform?
My favorite platform is the theater IRL—in real life. I miss New York City so much, even though I am in New York and I haven’t left. I guess we’re all here in New York for that reason, because we like to hang out and be irritated by peoples’ closeness. I really miss having a martini at the bar with the bro next to me who elbows me and makes my martini spill because he’s reaching for his frozen margarita. I think that the friction of real life is very important. It’s the sandpaper that lights the match. It’s the enzyme that makes everything go in motion.

Alex Goad, MARS. Photo: Gianluca di Ioia. Courtesy, Triennale di Milano

You were a part of the crisis management team that prepped museums to open for visitors during Covid. What was that process like for MoMa?
The overarching thing in my mind was to prove to the government that we were not Phase 4 [the last of the NYC business sectors to open]. We’re not the least essential business, not at all. For New Yorkers, culture is food for the soul and for the mind. When I moved to New York from Italy, I was amazed to find out that people who had a MoMA membership would sit in front of their favorite Rothko instead of having lunch. I’m Italian, so I should be familiar and at ease with art, but I’ve never seen the kind of metabolic use of art like I’ve seen in New York. I really felt by being part of the crisis management team that I was pursuing a civic mission, in a way. I was not a frontline worker—I was not risking my life like people in the ICU, and I have respect and absolute awe for them—[but] I was doing my little part.

Is there a monument to women in NYC that is significant to you?
South Cove, Battery Park City. [The artist] Mary Miss, to me, is one the most important, generous and pivotal New Yorkers. South Cove is wonderful. I bike there along the water in Battery Park City, and all of a sudden I turn and the temperature of the air cools down a few degrees, these beautiful plants are there that represent the beginning of Manhattan and there are these blue lanterns that give a sense of peace—and I realize what it means to be a generous artist. Thirty years later it’s still there, it’s part of our lives and we don’t even know that it’s Mary’s.

Which New York City–based women artists are catching your eye right now?
[Artists] Mary Miss, Joiri Minaya, Laura Splan (I love her virus doilies), Sarah Zapata, Erin Riley, Pamela Sneed, Mary Ping, Laurene Leon Boym, Karina Sharif. [Curators] Adeze Wilford, Kim Hastreiter, Elizabeth Ferrer, Ala Tannir, Allie/A.L Rickard, Elizabeth Way, Nicola Vassell, Lanka Tattersall, Ruba Katrib.

Recommended Curator Interviews

Museums & Galleries
Q&A with David Zwirner’s Ebony L. Haynes

Museums & Galleries
Q&A with Rubin Museum Curator Elena Pakhoutova