The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been collecting architecture and design since 1870, when it was given a Roman sarcophagus. More recent acquisitions include a stairway from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, by Louis Sullivan, and an entire living room by Frank Lloyd Wright. But the museum hasn’t had a full-time architecture and design curator until this year, when Beatrice Galilee, a 32-year-old architectural historian, became the museum’s first Daniel Brodsky Associate Curator of Architecture and Design. Galilee was chief curator of the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale and co-curator of citywide architecture festivals in Gwangju, South Korea, and Shenzen, China. In London, where she lived until this spring, she had been the director of The Gopher Hole, an exhibition and project space, and an editor at Icon Magazine. Though it is too early to announce specific shows planned for the Met, Galilee says, she will be working in both the “main” building and Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum building, which the Met will begin leasing from the Whitney next year.
Photo © Lynton Pepper
How do you like New York, architecturally?
My main experience of New York architecture for the last few months was trying to find an apartment. That was traumatic.
But you’re settled in?
Yes, in Brooklyn. And I have noticed that a lot is happening in New York, architecturally. There are cranes in the sky, which isn’t the case in every city I’ve lived in.
Why did the Met decide to bring in an architecture and design curator?
This just solidifies something the Met has already recognized: that architecture and design are major parts of the contemporary discourse. Increasingly, there are artworks that include and incorporate architecture. Dan Graham’s piece [on the roof through November 2] is quite an urban work as well as an architectural work. And right now we have Amie Siegel’s film [Provenance, 2013] about the furniture designed by Pierre Jeanneret for Chandigarh. So I’m coming to the Met at a time when it feels very welcoming to people of architectural disposition.
Is it daunting to think of putting on a show at such an august institution?
There will be many architecture exhibitions. With a biennale or a triennale, you get one shot—you don’t get a chance to improve. So that’s a lot more daunting.
How will the Met’s shows be different from those of MoMA and other New York institutions?
I don’t think it’s about difference. We see the other institutions—the Storefront for Art and Architecture, the Van Alen Institute, the Museum of Arts and Design, MoMA, the Cooper-Hewitt—as our community. It’s not about opposition or competition.
Does an architecture exhibition have to have a thesis, or can it be just a display of interesting or pretty objects?
I don’t think that you can put something in a museum without it standing for something. The Met is a place for people who appreciate the visual arts; aesthetics is not something to be taken lightly. But it’s also important to have the rigor. It’s not just about what you see but what you understand.
What are some architecture shows you've seen in recent years that you thought were successful?
I always cite [Kazuyo] Sejima’s biennale in 2010. I think that was one of the most successful Venice biennales, especially her use of the Arsenale to create experiences; they were completely tailored to the space and beautifully conceived and executed. It spoke to a very essential part of architecture, which is the framing of social space. I’ve never seen another exhibition that matches it.
And the current Venice Architecture Biennale?
I think there was a sense that it was somehow neglectful or irresponsible for the director to have focused so much on the declining social importance of the architect. People felt that a biennale should embrace the contemporary. I did feel the absence of that kind of survey of what’s happening now and what will happen in the future. And of course, as a curator I would like to go there and see the work of exciting young practices; it would really help me in my job. But I don’t think there’s any rule that says you have to do that kind of show. Also, as someone who just created a triennale, I have an enormous amount of empathy for anyone who has to curate something so large.
What was the focus of your triennale?
It looked at contemporary architectural practice outside the traditional client-architect dynamic, including ways architects can improve cities without actually building.
Do you want to bring any part of your triennale to the Met?
The nice thing about what I did in Korea and China and Lisbon is they’re site specific. They emerge from the fabric of the city, and they stay there.
Is your office in the Met?
Yes; I walk to my office via Greek and Roman art, then I cut through Africa and Oceanic art. It’s a pretty great place to work. And the last few weeks we’ve been watching a Sol LeWitt wall drawing go up in the corridor.
You left London to take this job. How do you feel about living here?
It’s an exciting time to be working in the States. With Pedro and Paola [Gadanho and Antonelli, at MoMA], Eva [Franch i Gilabert at the Storefront for Art and Architecture], Sarah [Herda] and Joseph [Grima] at the new Chicago Architecture Biennale, there are a lot of good people curating architecture. I can’t name them all.
And you can all learn from each other?
Yes. Curating architecture is a young discipline, and it’s something that is going through its growing pains. There are many panel discussions on the subject. Maybe too many! That’s the joy of my job.