Vincenzo de Bellis, artistic director of Miart, Milan’s international modern and contemporary art fair, has deep ties to the city’s artistic community.
Milan’s vibrant art scene has been partially credited for the city’s recent creative revival and de Bellis, who cofounded Peep-Hole Art Center, where he is codirector and curator, claims a small part of the credit, boldly stating, “I was part of the renaissance of the city.”
Now he’s trying to do the same with another city that beings with the letter “M” — but one that’s far away from the cobblestones and palazzos of Milan. Later this spring, de Bellis will move to Minneapolis to become curator of visual arts at the Walker Art Center, considered one of the country’s “big five” modern art museums along with the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum.
“When the Walker is interested in your work as a curator, it’s difficult to say no,” said de Bellis, whose tenure has been notable for Miart’s expansion to become international in scope, while the quality of the galleries involved was elevated. “I consider myself more than anything else, a curator.”
According to de Bellis, the intersection of art and commerce at Miart was organic. “You’re immersed in commercial issues, but the main thing is to drive the quality of the fair with the right presentation and the kind of content you want people to look at,” de Bellis said. “I [saw] it as an institution first, and then as a commercial enterprise.
De Bellis was nonetheless pragmatic. “If it didn’t work commercially, people wouldn’t come back,” he said. “We were in a country that suffered a lot in terms of the financial crisis. When sales happened at Miart, it was a big surprise. The reason why the fair was growing in terms of quality, was because it was a commercial success.”
De Bellis also capitalized on Milan’s resources, including its architecture and status as a design and fashion center, conceptually making the city an argument in favor of Miart.
The Walker’s permanent collection is diverse, de Bellis said. “It’s mainly American, but also has a range of artists from around the world, including Italian art from the Sixties and Seventies. There are some holes in the collection that need to be covered, but we need to move on and consider a new generation of artists.”
De Bellis, who sought to bring art to life through Miartalks, a platform for conferences, lectures, panel discussions and interviews, said he was drawn to the Walker for its strong public programming component. “I showed that Miart is not only an exhibition space but that we’re doing other projects like workshops and talks. This will be one of the most important things we do at the Walker. We know we can do something special.”
When it comes to his own preferences, de Bellis demurred. “I don’t have any specific tastes or specific interests,” he said. “I am a multifaceted curator. It’s important for curators to mirror the diversity of the art world, not just geography and gender, but even formal conceptual diversity.”
De Bellis said that’s what he tried to accomplish at Peep-Hole, which he cofounded with his wife, Bruna Roccasalva, and where he curated solo exhibitions by Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Uri Aran, Francesco Arena, Trisha Baga, Adriano Costa, Mario Garcia Torres, Paolo Icaro, Corrado Levi, Renata Lucas, Gabriel Sierra and Andra Ursuta, among others.
“What really interests me is things I don’t understand, meaning there is something to be learned from them,” he said. “My personal idea is that the more I don’t understand, the better I think the work is. I don’t mean that what’s direct and super-straightforward isn’t interesting,” de Bellis clarified. It’s just that things that have more depth and are more difficult, appeal to him.
Moreover, he sees his role as a curator as trying to filter and represent something complicated in terms the public can understand.
De Bellis said the art market is vast, both in size and in terms of disciplines. “The tastes are different from the past,” he said. “Maybe abstract painting could be the next big thing. But things are changing again. It’s too quick to say where the market is going.”
Asked which artists, who are no longer living, he would have liked to meet, de Bellis, without hesitation, named Luciano Fabro, an Italian sculptor, conceptual artist and writer associated with the Arte Povera movement. “He was the most important and influential teacher at the art school in Milan from the Sixties and Seventies until two years ago, when he died,” de Bellis said.
Another artist who eluded de Bellis was Ellsworth Kelly, whose work belonged to hard-edged painting, Color Field painting and minimalism. Kelly, who died in December, lived not far from Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where de Bellis received a master of arts in curatorial studies from the Center For Curatorial Studies at Bard College.
“Bard has a strong reputation. It was the best school for curatorial studies,” de Bellis said. “The faculty were people I wanted to spend time with and really wanted to work with. It was two years of superintense work. I wanted to give up at a certain point because I felt I wasn’t good enough. My wife, who at the time was my girlfriend, pushed me to continue. It really changed my life.
“If you asked me seven months ago, where I would want to go, I would have told you, the Walker,” de Bellis said. “It’s probably the most interesting museum and a place with a huge legacy and heritage. It’s a place where people don’t compromise.”