Outside the Box

With a new exhibition, maverick curator Peter Eleey makes his first mark at the Walker

ON A QUIET FALL EVENING a few years ago, Peter Eleey’s career as a curator launched with a bang, or rather, thousands of them. The sky above New York’s Central Park erupted with geysers of light as a short but massive display of choreographed fireworks, dubbed “Light Cycle,” captivated residents. The artist that Eleey had tapped, Cai Guo-Qiang, hoped the violent explosions would hang “like amulets over the heart of Manhattan.” Instead, terrified apartment-dwellers called the police to report a terrorist attack.

At the time, Eleey was a curator at Creative Time, a nonprofit devoted to public art. But the sheer scale and audacity of “Light Cycle” pushed him into the art-world limelight. His subsequent projects were just as ambitious and attention-getting—from airplane banners displaying Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms” to an exhibition displayed in a former meat-packing warehouse. With each new venture, Eleey’s name circulated through art circles anew and, in 2006, it reached the ear of the Walker Art Center’s chief curator, Philippe Vergne, who was looking to hire a new visual-arts curator.

It didn’t bother Vergne that Eleey wasn’t a typical candidate for the job. He was younger than his silver coif might indicate. (He received a bachelor of arts from Yale in 2000, so do the math.) He lacked the graduate credentials most museum curators possess. And he wasn’t afraid of ruffling feathers: In fact, Eleey had just published a rather critical review of the 2006 Whitney Biennial—a show that Vergne had helped curate.

Vergne thought Eleey’s curiosity and edge seemed right for the Walker, one of the most highly regarded contemporary-arts institutions in the world—and his decision to hire Eleey caught the attention of the artistic elite. When Eleey accepted the position in January 2007, it was one of those rare moments when a 28-year-old’s job change is considered significant enough to be reported in the New York Times.

The first Walker show curated by Eleey opens this month, and it may offer insight into how his approach might impact the museum’s visual-arts programming. The retrospective on the artist and choreographer Trisha Brown, known for works involving dancers climbing on gallery walls, will include, among other elements, a work in which participating visitors are asked to lie down on the gallery floor. Eleey, it appears, is starting his career at the Walker with a bang that’s no less flashy than a fireworks display.

Eleey, who is partial to wearing sport coats and preppy sweaters, has a demeanor that’s a mix of youth and maturity—think Alex P. Keaton from TV’s Family Ties, but with an interest in art rather than economics. As a teenager, Eleey read art magazines instead of, say, Mad or Sports Illustrated. He was hooked on tracking artists and gallery shows, he says, “in the same way other kids looked at baseball cards.”

In college, Eleey studied painting and was determined to become an artist. But he soon realized that a solo studio practice didn’t jibe with his aspiration to interact with a broad range of people and ideas—the very desire that drew him to art in the first place. So he looked for other ways to be involved with art and artists.

Eleey became a critic for one of the Yale student newspapers, and he wasn’t shy about passing acid judgments, even when reviewing an exhibition curated by one of his professors. “The curators lack the necessary courage to choose pieces which truly reflect the impact of Yale artists on contemporary art,” he wrote. “The cross-listings on the wall tags are gratuitous, and merely treat the interested viewer to the type of didactic hand-holding usually reserved for a petting zoo.”

After graduation, Eleey joined Creative Time as a producer. He planned to continue writing as a critic, and he hoped that being an administrator would allow him to work in the visual arts yet would also give him some separation from the artists he might critique. But Creative Time’s director, Anne Pasternak, encouraged him to shift into a curatorial role. At first, she says, Eleey resisted: He liked the distance of being a critic. “Once you’re a curator, you put your own ideas, beliefs, and tastes on the line,” she says.

Public-art curators are like ambassadors: They must convince a diverse set of people to support a project, from construction engineers and politicians to lawyers and community boards. Pasternak says Eleey’s communication skills are part of what helped establish his reputation in New York. “He can talk to anybody about anything, whether they’re an artist or a police officer,” she says. “He’s well-informed on important issues. He’s inquisitive and articulate and compelling when you engage him in conversation.” Plus, she adds, “He’s so damned good-looking. He’s a charming, sexy guy.”

Eleey may be charismatic, but it doesn’t mean he’s always flattering. When Vergne first met Eleey, he says, “We did not agree on almost anything we talked about—and I think that was a good sign. I thought Peter was an interesting choice because his understanding of art was different enough from mine and the rest of the curators’.”

ELEEY’S DECISION to leave New York for Minneapolis is, in some sense, an indication of the the Walker’s international stature. Known around the world as an innovator in cross-disciplinary programming, the museum is equally devoted to visual, performing, and film and video arts. The Walker’s 2005 addition—a silver chunk hovering over Hennepin Avenue—makes it clear that the art inside isn’t exactly Rembrandt and Rockwell: Over the years, its curators have been early supporters of up-and-comers who have recently made it big, like Matthew Barney and Kara Walker.

“There are very few institutions in the U.S., if not the world, that take the same approach to creative risk-taking,” Eleey says.

If you want to get a sense of what Eleey means by risk-taking, consider the exhibit on view this spring in Gallery 7 at the Walker: The room is empty, save for a guy crawling around on the floor—call it dancing, call it performance, call it wacky. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s Eleey’s favorite piece on display.

Part of Eleey’s new job involves discovering new artists and deepening the museum’s ties with established ones—Trisha Brown, for example, has been working with the Walker for decades. The retrospective that opens this month is, appropriately, a mix of visual and performing arts. At the exhibit’s preview, Brown plans to place a large piece of paper on the gallery floor, hold drawing utensils between her fingers and toes, and, while dancing, create an artwork to be hung on the gallery wall. It will also be a participatory experience: In one room, visitors will be asked to recline on beanbags and contemplate the ceiling while listening to an audio recording of Brown’s voice. Later in the summer, Eleey will stage one of Brown’s most dramatic works: “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building,” which is exactly as it sounds—a harnessed dancer walking straight down the façade of the original building’s brick tower.

Working in a museum is different than working on public-art installations. But Eleey says he doesn’t feel constrained by the bounds of working within the walls of an institution. Rather, he’s eager to push the envelope—questioning expectations about the museum experience. “People say that, when they come to the Walker, they don’t expect to like everything that they see,” he says. “But they expect to be challenged.”

Rachel Hutton is a former associate editor with Minnesota Monthly.