The Academy Welcomes Peter Benson Miller as the New Andrew Heiskell Arts Director

August 29, 2013
Peter Benson Miller
Peter Benson Miller at the Museo Carlo Bilotti in 2010
Peter Benson Miller with work by Philip Guston at the Museo Carlo Bilotti
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Peter Benson Miller began his three-year tenure as the Andrew Heiskell Arts Director on 1 August. We asked him about his career as an art historian and curator in New York, Paris, and Rome.

You moved to Rome in 2009 from Paris after a period at the Musée d’Orsay. What prompted your move?

Several factors led to my return to Rome in 2009, spurred by a gradual shift in my work as an art historian and curator towards modern and contemporary topics, after sustained interest in nineteenth-century orientalist painting.

In 2000, while still a graduate student in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, I was awarded a Theodore Rousseau Fellowship from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to complete my dissertation in Paris on French Romantic painter Théodore Chassériau and his depiction of North Africa. As I pursued my research in Paris, I was invited to contribute to the catalogue of a major retrospective dedicated to Chassériau organized jointly by the Metropolitan and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. This led to a job at the Musée d’Orsay, where I organized symposia and guest lectures, including an international conference to coincide with a Courbet retrospective at the Grand Palais. I also coordinated a series of talks given by contemporary artists, including conversations with Brice Marden and Jeff Wall, in conjunction with exhibitions of their work in the galleries at the Orsay.

But, even during my tenure at the Orsay, I returned often to Rome. In 2007, I co-curated with Deepak Ananth an exhibition of contemporary Indian art as part of the Rome Film Festival. With the help of the Rome-based architecture studio Ma0, we converted the garage of Renzo Piano’s Parco della Musica into an exhibition space. Many of the artists in our show, such as Subodh Gupta and N. S. Harsha, now prominent figures, were subsequently included in the exhibition Indian Highway at the MAXXI.

I realized that the time was right to return to Rome and strike out as an independent curator. Luckily, a dream project presented itself that offered the perfect opportunity to take the plunge. I had been exploring ties between American painter Philip Guston (FAAR’49, RAAR’71) and Italy for some time, but in late 2008 I found in his Roma series – painted in 1971 while he was a resident at the American Academy, a little-studied, but crucial period in his career – a compelling subject for a focused exhibition. The venue, the Museo Carlo Bilotti, housed in the former Orangerie of the Villa Borghese, complemented Guston’s imagery in the Roma pictures, in which his infamous Ku Klux Klansmen metamorphose into umbrella pines and fragments of classical sculptures. The project also allowed me to work closely with Martin Brody (RAAR’02) one of my predecessors as Andrew Heiskell Arts Director, providing a blueprint for future collaborations between the American Academy in Rome and major cultural institutions in the city.

You’ve lived in New York, Paris and Rome! How would you compare the cultural atmospheres of these three cities?

I am grateful to have grown up in New York, a dynamic cultural environment that, along with my parents’ encouragement, instilled in me an open-mindedness that has guided my approach to contemporary art and all kinds of intellectual endeavor. New York remains an absolutely unique creative laboratory, a mixture of brash market forces and a constant influx of new talent, which together generate innovative ideas and approaches.

While I appreciated it for its trove of nineteenth-century works of art and architecture, Paris has increasingly become an important center for contemporary art. The city coasted for a while on nostalgia for previous eras, which is of course part of its appeal. It has since tilted toward the present with the emergence of the Palais de Tokyo and other contemporary spaces, as well as Belleville, a dynamic gallery district. Paris, too, has perhaps the most educated and outspoken museum public that I have ever encountered, which brings a great deal of vitality to institutions such as the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and Beaubourg.

All appearances to the contrary, Rome has a rich contemporary culture, while more restricted in scope than that of New York, Paris or London. This comes as a bit of a surprise to foreign visitors who associate Rome exclusively with ancient ruins and faded grandeur. Many of the young artists I have encountered in Rome are doing very interesting things. Until recently, they have had scant visibility and limited outlets for showing their work. With MAXXI and MACRO, they now have museums of an international stature generating enthusiasm for all things contemporary, as well as a growing number of galleries attracting serious attention from abroad. Even the GNAM (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna), which looks on the outside like a sleepy nineteenth-century museum, has been hosting cutting edge exhibitions and re-installing its stellar permanent collection in provocative ways.

Would you tell us about some of your most recent projects?

Last fall, I co-curated with Barbara Drudi an exhibition at the Museo Carlo Bilotti, Afro: Dal Progetto all’Opera, to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Italian painter Afro Basaldella. It delved into the creative process of one of Italy’s most important twentieth century artists, one particularly attentive to artistic currents in the United States. In conjunction with the Drawing Center in New York, I organized an exhibition of works on paper from the 1970s by Sean Scully at the GNAM, Sean Scully: Change and Horizontals, which ran from March to June this year. My essay in the catalogue explored Scully’s ongoing artistic dialogue with Giorgio Morandi.

This summer, I conceived and curated an exhibition for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the international music festival Incontri in Terra di Siena in a castle in southern Tuscany, Castelluccio di Pienza, at La Foce, a site long associated with exhibitions of contemporary art. Entitled The Naturalists, it features work in various media by twenty-two contemporary artists, whose work engages disciplines in natural history. These include Carl D’Alvia, a Fellow this past year at the American Academy in Rome. I spent two weeks at La Foce working with the artists as they installed their work. It was fascinating to see how the artists responded to the evocative spaces in the castle’s interior. We needed a crane with a sixty meter retractable arm to lift Bizhan Bassiri’s monumental sculpture Meteorite (narwhal) over the cypresses and place it in the basin in the lower garden at La Foce.

I am currently editing a volume of essays about Philip Guston, which originated in the symposium held at the American Academy in 2010 in conjunction with the exhibition at the Museo Carlo Bilotti. The authors include Robert Storr, Dore Ashton, Bill Berkson, David Anfam, Achille Bonito Oliva and Robert Slifkin, among other notable scholars and critics. We are aiming to launch the book by the end of 2013, the centenary of Guston’s birth.

I am also working on a show dedicated to American photographer and art critic Milton Gendel, a fascinating figure who has lived in Rome since 1949. He has enjoyed a long association with the Academy. We hope to bring an abridged version of the retrospective held at the Museo Carlo Bilotti and the American Academy in Rome in the fall of 2011 to the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at New York University.

At the moment, I am writing an essay for the catalogue to Patricia Cronin’s (FAAR’07) upcoming exhibition at the Centrale Montemartini in Rome, which houses antiquities from the collection of the Capitoline Museums in a former power station. Cronin’s work subtly evokes the late nineteenth-century Rome of Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the neoclassicism of American sculptor Harriet Hosmer, and their morbid fascination with the supernatural.

What are the different challenges and rewards to mounting exhibitions in Rome?

There are considerable, but not insurmountable hurdles to mounting exhibitions in Rome. That said, I have forged very productive collaborations with museum directors, curators and administrators, whose energy and pragmatism in a difficult moment for culture in Italy goes against the grain of what one generally hears. Oddly enough, despite the challenges, there are plenty of opportunities for enterprising freelance curators in Italy at the moment. One needs tenacity, creativity and, above all, a sense of humor. Working in Rome prepares one for all kinds of challenges. Thus, bringing a worthwhile project to fruition is all the more satisfying as a result.

You’ve authored essays on an incredibly wide-ranging number of subjects. Is there an artist or topic that remains closest to your heart, intellectually speaking?

I suppose that the real test is whether a topic or an artist continues to surprise and confound even after you think you have explored them inside and out. In this sense, Guston wins hands down. His paintings and writings constantly force me to question a whole range of assumptions. Few artists that I have studied affect me in this way. As if that weren’t enough, Guston also forged, against significant and hostile resistance, one of the most distinctive and eloquent, if at times brutally frank, arguments for the continued viability of painting. His stature among artists working today is legendary.

What is your favorite place in Rome and why?

I have many favorite spots, including a family-run Trattoria in the via del Pellegrino located beneath my former apartment. The food is market fresh, exquisitely simple and delicious, and there are home-made fettucine on Sunday, but the charm of the place owes as much to the atmosphere as it does to the menu. The décor is nothing special, just a few tables with simple white monogrammed tablecloths. The unpretentious interior is animated however by the gruff charm of the proprietor and his wife, who presides over the fornelli in the kitchen. Regular clients range from actors and politicians to local artisans. Over the years, I have learned more about contemporary Italian society in that little restaurant than I have anywhere else.

I also love the interior of Borromini’s church San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. All that taut geometry and the play of light upon the interlocking octagonal reliefs on the coffered dome offer welcome respite from the hullabaloo outside.

What are you most looking forward to about your tenure as the Andrew Heiskell Arts Director?

Above all, I am looking forward to encouraging interdisciplinary exchanges between the Fellows. As an art historian, I have always looked outside the traditional confines of the discipline for ways to open up productive dialogues. I am also eager to introduce the Fellows to the rich resources available in Rome, from art collections and archives to writers, artists and curators, as they pursue their projects. I would like to tap into the considerable well of interest and potential support for the Academy that exists in Rome, and create more opportunities for an expanded public to come and appreciate the great things that go on there.