18 July 2010
New York Times
staff art critic gave expat Sydneysider Benjamin Genocchio entree to the world.
Of recent years, he explains on the phone from Beijing, he’s been to Pakistan twice, through Iran, Burma and Cambodia, researching and writing articles for the
, art magazines and for his latest book on contemporary Asian art, co-written with his art curator wife and due to be published in September.
For this global career, Genocchio can thank an angry Italian junior minister and an Australian art criticism scandal that became an international free speech flashpoint.
The tall, bald 41-year-old, who is himself half-Italian, responds wryly when asked if he’s crossed paths again with his nemesis, Vittorio Sgarbi, who in 2002 was Italy’s under-secretary for culture in Silvio Berlusconi’s cabinet. “Given the tumultuous nature of Italian politics, it was only a matter of time before he was swiftly bundled out of office,” muses Genocchio. “But from what I understand, he’s still causing trouble.”
The kind of trouble of which an ambitious art critic can only dream. Eight years ago, Genocchio was working as an art critic for
and wrote a feisty review of
The Italians: Three Centuries of Italian Art
at the National Gallery of Art. “I wrote that this was just a grab bag of pictures, very poor and unevenly put together and hyped beyond reason.”
The private show had been organised by a consortium with Sgarbi’s assistance, but lacked a curatorial purpose or scholarly thesis. Genocchio’s review made its way onto the front page and Sgarbi, who was in Australia, reacted by calling a press conference. “He was tearing his hair out, saying he would sue me and [the newspaper’s owner] Rupert Murdoch for fifty million,” says Genocchio. One wit in the Canberra press corps asked: “Is that dollars or lira?”
Genocchio meanwhile found this “tempest in a teacup” had made him a cause celebre. “I had TV trucks banked up outside the house. I had human rights workers wanting to defend my free speech.” The story was carried in about 35 newspapers, including
The New York Times
. Michael Kimmelman, the Times’s chief art critic, met Genocchio while visiting Canberra and, after the ballyhoo, Genocchio received an email and the offer of a job at the Times.
In retrospect, how important was Sgarbi’s rant to Genocchio’s standing? “It got me hired. It certainly made a small provincial art critic the centre of an international art and journalistic scandal; you know, it thrust me into international prominence.
“And for that, I’m forever grateful.”
For those who are curious, Sgarbi, who also dabbles in art criticism and cultural commentary – shouting at opponents in TV appearances – went through several party affiliation changes before becoming mayor in 2008 of Salemi, a small Sicilian town of 11,800 people devastated by a 1968 earthquake, offering to sell abandoned homes there for one euro each, constructing a mafia museum and even trying to sell Salemi culturally as the “new New York”.
In 2003, Genocchio and his Darwin-born wife, Melissa Chiu – whom he met through art circles in Australia – made their home in the real New York. Chiu landed a job as museum director at Asia Society on Park Avenue and the couple, who’d brought virtually no possessions, took a one-room rent controlled apartment near Ground Zero, the site of the former World Trade Centre.
A brothel was being run out of their building. “It wasn’t pretty, and I thought I’d died and gone to hell,” says Genocchio.
Genocchio was assigned to cover the north-east and tri-state areas; museums outside of the city. As an outsider looking in, he loved the job. Art in New York is a world of money: in one week alone, Sotheby’s, Phillips and Christie’s auction houses sold $1.8 billion worth of work.
Such a long way from Lane Cove West Public School, where Genocchio, in some sort of insight of a professional future hurling rotten fruit from the stalls, was suspended for a week in grade six for climbing on the roof and hurling lollies. “My mother once said to me, ‘Don’t run across the road because you’ll get hit by a car.’ I promptly ran across the road and said, ‘See mum, I didn’t get hit.’ I was independent-minded.”
Genocchio had been born in 1969, the second of four boys in his family. He says he always had a short attention span, a low boredom threshold that would ultimately suit him as an art critic: “I get to be interested in all sorts of things for three days,” he says, but the insight seems a little glib given he would show the discipline to write books, including an insightful and lively account of the Aboriginal art world,
, published in 2008.
His father, Giorgio, is Italian, from a merchant family in Genoa. Giorgio worked for a French cruise liner, which in the early 1960s would take six months to work its way from Marseilles to Sydney. On board, Giorgio – who didn’t speak a word of English – met his future wife, Jennifer, who had sold her father’s stamp collection to travel Europe with a friend. They married after they got to Sydney.
Giorgio and Jennifer encouraged their boys to engage with art and the theatre. “I remember being 10 when they took me to see Robyn Archer nude in a lesbian play at the Belvoir Street Theatre,” says Genocchio. “That is imprinted on my mind!” In secondary school, he developed a passion and love for studying ancient history, sculptures and artefacts, and was drawn to the mythology and stories of objects.
He wrote his first reviews for
magazine in the early 1990s on young artists whose works business types might want to collect. “I was just a baby art critic; I probably didn’t understand anything about the market,” he admits, though he applied his learning from a PhD in art history at Sydney University as he refined his writing.
Today Genocchio and Chiu live in Gramercy, a small and elegant downtown neighbourhood, clustered around a private Manhattan park. Their apartment on the 11th floor of a 1930s 20-storey brownstone has a view up Third Avenue to the Chrysler building, and downtown to the Woolworth building. Chiu, who is 38, is now also vice president of Asia Society’s global arts programs, and is overseeing construction of the society’s new facilities in Hong Kong and Houston.
“New York is constantly changing, so for someone with a short attention span, it’s the perfect place,” says Genocchio, though he lists the bleak winters and battling the crowds as minuses.
“This is a city where all the best stuff is concealed; there are layers of immersion – the variety of restaurants, the choice of shops, the luminous theatre scene and ever-expanding number of galleries.”
He keeps a desk in the newsroom of the
’s headquarters in the 52-storey glass-and-steel clad building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, which he ordinarily visits about once a week. There are about 100 people in the newspaper’s culture department, about 10 of whom report or critique the visual arts.
Is everything steady at the
since Mexican banker Carlos Slim last year upped his investment; an extra $250 million after losing tens of millions on his initial 6.9 per cent ownership stake in the Times company? “Yeah, Carlos paid off some revolving debt that had come due … so Carlos will have to be paid back, yeah, or he’ll remain an investor.”
The Times, says Genocchio, has “challenges, but remains a beacon of newspaper publishing in an online world and that, for what it’s worth, is a valuable commodity. It’s increasingly a valuable international commodity; it’s [also] really made a play to be a national newspaper [with] sections and editions sold in Chicago, San Francisco and Houston.”
Of course, Genocchio is now competing with his old boss Murdoch, who as owner of
The Wall Street Journal
unveiled in April an expanded parochial news section, Greater New York, to attempt to undermine the Times. “Well, that’s for advertising purposes, right?” says Genocchio.
“The advertising engines are retail, cars and Hollywood movies … nobody wants to be advertising the latest fashions in a section devoted to stories on bombings in Pakistan or earthquakes in southern China. You really have to find an appropriate context for advertising dollars … [but] the
’s a very small paper you know, about a third the size of the Times.”
Genocchio’s latest book,
Contemporary Asian Art
, co-authored with Chiu, will be published by Thames & Hudson in London and Monacelli Press in New York. He’s had the idea since the early 1990s to pen a survey-length book on the subject, but the project required extensive travel; its only been since taking up the Times job he’s had the opportunity to get to Pakistan and elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East.
The book promises to provide insights into the current generation of Chinese artists, who’ve sought to distance themselves from their parents and their Cultural Revolution connection, and what the economic boom has meant for art in India.
But still, Genocchio confesses to missing Sydney terribly: the sea breeze on his face, the taste of cold beer. “My dream is to return and have a nice apartment with a view over the water, to be able to walk to the fish market every day and get a kilo of prawns and a nice bottle of white wine and sit on my balcony and watch the boats go by.” That, however, won’t be any time soon, not while the art world beckons.