The Aesthete

Higher Ground

Cecilia Alemani, curator of Manhattan's High Line, brings outdoor art to a whole new level

by Rebecca Carroll Photography Mike Vorrasi

As a young aspiring curator in Milan, Italy, Alemani had felt somewhat daunted by the prospect of moving to New York City. “It is such a hard city to imagine living in,” says Alemani, who had not been to the United States prior to her 2003 move to study in the Bard College curatorial program. “Even if you've read about it and seen movies, the energy can never be translated to your ideas.” In her trilling Italian accent, Aleman recalls how she had arrived in New York with “my two huge suitcases.” After that, she says with a wide, guileless grin, “I never left.”

At 35, Alemani now holds the coveted position of Curator and Director of the High Line Art program presented by Friends of the High Line, and happily shares that once here, she immediately felt welcome. “New Yorkers really love Italians,” she says. And if Alemani is representative of an Italian in the eyes of a New Yorker, it’s easy to see why. Tall, lithe and genuinely fetching, Alemani greets me on the High Line wearing a Missoni-esque print top and crisp white skinny jeans. Her face is aglow and she is clearly pleased to see so many visitors out and enjoying themselves as we walk the length of the High Line, which is indeed buzzing with people — couples, families with young children, tourists, New Yorkers. She smiles broadly at passersby and engages with such grace and ease that I forget this is her job, and that we are in a public park.

Alemani’s primary task is to commission “not just public art, but art for the public.”

With its pop-minded partnership events (serving as venue for the 10th anniversary of Project Runway earlier this year), coveted art-centric location (right smack in the middle of the Chelsea art gallery scene), high profile financial donors (Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenburg among them) and celebrity board members (including Edward Norton and Lisa Maria Falcone), it doesn’t always immediately register that the High Line is an historical landmark owned by the New York City Parks & Recreation Department, and for which Alemani’s primary task is to commission “not just public art, but art for the public.”

“I know it may sound banal,” she says, in between brief pauses to point out some of the hidden sculptures along the way, “but it’s all for the 4 million people that come to the High Line every year.” Fortunately, Alemani is undeterred by the prospect of 4 million people looking at art she has hand-selected. In her post since October 2011, she clearly loves what she does.

One unforeseen snag with the job, however, is the “spontaneous art” that has begun to pop up on the residential buildings that surround the High Line. “People who have properties in the area are starting to put up huge, gigantic colorful murals and art installations, which are not part of our program,” explains Alemani of scattered pieces along the line that include a rooftop installation of a free-standing zoo by multi-media artist Jordan Betten. “I love the fact that it’s a creative effort. It’s just that if I want to put a sculpture in front of that wall, now there is a huge mural there. So logistically it’s hard to manage, but it is also something that is interesting and exciting. Part of my job now is figuring out how we talk about this other art — how we embrace and explain it. I don’t have an answer yet.”

"I don't stare up anymore, because I'm so used to [it]... It's something that no other city can communicate to you — this kind of verticality.”

As we reach the end of the line and look out at the vast green density of what is still left to be restored, Alemani appears serene, like she is exactly where she is meant to be. On our return, Alemani, who lives in the East Village with her husband, New Museum Associate Director Massimiliano Gioni, tells of a recent visit from her parents. “They kept staring up,” she says. “I don't stare up anymore, because I'm so used to the buildings. I did at first, especially in midtown. I would go the MoMA and then spend the rest of my day looking up. It's something that no other city can communicate to you — this kind of verticality. It's really specific to New York.”

And staying true to that sort of New York specificity is what Alemani aims to achieve through her ongoing exhibitions at High Line Art. “The whole story of the High Line was born out of the idea of community. It’s a community park,” she says, against an open air backdrop of picnics and ice cream cones, laughter and lolling. “Art is something that comes on top of the park to keep the experience fresh and new, but it is a park and our mission is for people to experience the park in its nature.”