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Frieze Week New York 2024

Dodie Kazanjian on Gallery Met (and Getting Advice from Manolo Blahnik)

Founding director and curator Dodie Kazanjian talks about her initiative, launched in 2006, to bring contemporary art to the Metropolitan Opera

BY Kat Herriman AND Dodie Kazanjian in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 05 MAY 24

Kat Herriman I want to start with the origin story of Gallery Met and how you and Peter Gelb, the general manager at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, came to meet.

Dodie Kazanjian It was 2005. Donna Rosen, a dear friend whose husband, Ben [Rosen], was on the board of the Metropolitan Opera, asked me if I would have lunch with Peter. It had been announced that he was taking over as general manager, but he was still acting as a fly on the wall for a year to observe how the place worked. I remember the next day my cellphone rang and it was Peter, asking me if I would help him with an artist-designed brochure for his opening season. I said, “Sure, I’ll help you with that if you’ll give me a space to show artists in the house.” I was joking, but then he said, “You read my mind.”

KH So you got carte blanche from the start?

DK As long as the program paid for itself. Also, everything I do is in collaboration with Peter. That’s what makes Gallery Met work, and the connection between art and opera is intoxicating. Gallery Met debuted in 2006 with Peter’s opening production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Titled “Heroines,” the show featured ten artists including Cecily Brown, George Condo, John Currin, Verne Dawson, Wangechi Mutu and Richard Prince. And Donna, the godmother of Gallery Met, gave a superb dinner on opening night. It was magical. All the artists who were in the show came, along with Steve Martin, John McEnroe, Patti Smith, Anne Stringfield and many other friends.

KH Were you an opera buff before you met Peter?

DK Peter opened the door for me. The wonderful thing was that, through Peter, I could go to the opera without staying for the whole performance. I could use his box and go in and out as I pleased. And I was able to take artists. That appealed to me—introducing artists to the opera—and that appealed to Peter, too.

Aliza Nisenbaum, Opening Night, Soprano Nadine Sierra (MET Traviata), 2023. Courtesy: Anton Kern Gallery, New York. Photo: Thomas Barratt
Aliza Nisenbaum, Opening Night, Soprano Nadine Sierra (MET Traviata), 2023. Courtesy: Anton Kern Gallery, New York; photograph: Thomas Barratt 

KH Were there specific historical references you looked at when putting together the program?

DK We mostly made it up as we went along. The idea was for it to be an incubator for original art that would relate to what was happening on stage. The program also connected to the history of artists involved with opera and with the Met—like Marc Chagall and David Hockney. Peter wanted me to engage new artists with that history and, when he asked me if I knew an artist who had directed an opera, I said William Kentridge, thinking of his production of The Magic Flute at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2007. Peter got together with William and out came William’s production of Dmitri Shostakovic’s The Nose, in the 2009–10 season.

KH I always love seeing the artist banners for the new shows. When did that program start?

DK It was almost right away, in 2008, because I loved the idea of using the facade of the building as public art. It was another way to engage artists. Barnaby Furnas was making his massive and enveloping flood paintings at the time, and he made one as a banner that went across all five arches of the Met’s facade. It’s the only time we’ve ever done that. There have been so many memorable banners through the years, from the impressive group of artists who did the four operas of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle during the 2010–12 seasons—Julie Mehretu [Das Rheingold], Elizabeth Peyton [Die Walküre], Peter Doig [Siegfried] and Dana Schutz [Götterdämmerung]—to indelible contributions by Glenn Ligon , Cindy Sherman [for La Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini in 2009], Kerry James Marshall [for the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in the 2019–20 season] and many, many more. But going back to Gallery Met’s origins, it began with a room of its own in the south lobby.

KH Has anyone ever taken over the whole house?

DK Around 2017, I asked Peter if Gallery Met could happen throughout the whole opera house as opposed to just staying within the walls of the south lobby space. We had done this informally once before with Elizabeth Peyton in 2011. Elizabeth had wanted to cover the gallery’s walls with the same red velvet that’s on the walls of the opera house and, with the help of the Met’s house manager, we were able to find enough leftover fabric to do that.

KH Are the artists you invite already interested in and knowledgeable about opera?

DK Many of them had no knowledge of opera. But Peter Doig, for instance, had worked as a dresser for the English National Opera when he was a student in London—he’s steeped in it and loves it, and his work is operatic. Elizabeth developed a great admiration for opera, and the subject began to infuse her art. She began making paintings about opera and following performances around the world. When I had the idea, back in 2017, to expand outside the gallery walls, I was thinking about the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London and how well that has worked, giving an artist the whole space for a year. Peter gave the go ahead. The first artist I thought of for that was Cecily Brown. Her two 26-foot-long, unforgettable Triumph of the Vanities paintings opened with the Met’s 2018 season. I remember when I showed Cecily around, I just said, “Look at the Chagalls, take them on, you can do that.” I knew she could, and did she ever. I always wanted her murals to stay.

Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown, Triumph of the Vanities II, 2018. Courtesy: © Cecily Brown and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; photograph: Steven Probert

KH It was a great conversation.

DK She knew how to do it. She knew how to be respectful but not too respectful, and just how far to go too far. She’s British, and she knows how to be cheeky. The next intervention was by George Condo, and I invited him to put a sculpture outside on the front balcony. When I took him out there, I asked, “Could you do something right here?” and he said, “Yep,” and described the 13-½-foot-tall golden head, Constellation of Voices, that’s on the Grand Tier terrace now.

KH What amazes me is that you always show new work.

DK There’s only been one time when that wasn’t the case and that was for an earlier production of the Ring cycle. I wanted to ask Anselm Kiefer, whose drawings of the Ring cycle I knew from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Kiefer had refused to set foot in the US while George W. Bush was president. I always wanted to collaborate with the Met Museum, and here was my chance. Gary Tinterow, who was then director of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art there, graciously agreed to lend Kiefer’s drawings and works on paper for what became “From the Met to the Met” in 2009.

KH An exception to the rule. 

DK Well, it’s like Manolo Blahnik once told me: “Consistency is for nerds.”

“Aliza Nisenbaum: The Three Divas of Traviata,” curated by Dodie Kazanjian, is on view at Gallery Met, Metropolitan Opera, New York, until September 1

This article first appeared in Frieze Week New York 2024 under the title “A Brief History of Gallery Met”

Further Information

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Main image: Aliza Nisenbaum, Backstage at the MET, The Quick Change Booth (Traviata), 2023. Courtesy: Anton Kern Gallery, New York; photograph: Izzy Leung

Kat Herriman is a writer and creative director of Cultured. She lives in New York, USA

Dodie Kazanjian covers the art world for Vogue and is the founding director and curator of Gallery Met at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, USA.