Meet artist Michelle Grabner, Whitney Biennial 2014 curator

A key figure in Chicago's art world, Michelle Grabner takes on the highest-profile job of her career

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Michelle Grabner, curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial contemporary art show in New York, describes the artwork in her Oak Park home.

NEW YORK CITY

A few months before Michelle Grabner presided over the final details of the prestigious 2014 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art here, a white Buick LeSabre plowed into the side of her small art gallery in Oak Park. This was back in the fall, on a quiet Sunday just after dawn. She knew the car was coming, and she welcomed the impact. She even invited some friends to come over and watch.

Grabner, an artist, curator, critic and professor at the School of the Art Institute — a figure so deeply influential and ubiquitous in the Chicago art scene and beyond that artist Tony Tasset puts her at "the dead center of the art world right now" — had little to fear. As one of three curators of the 77th edition of the Biennial, arguably the most venerated trendsetting showcase for contemporary art in the world (it opened Friday and runs through May), Grabner stands atop a career apex. Explained Jay Sanders, Whitney curator (as well as co-curator of the 2012 Biennial: "Michelle, as an educator, a curator and an artist herself, defines what it means to curate contemporary art in 2014. And it means facing a hugely expanded field where a curator is expected to occupy more than one space at a time. Michelle champions the overlooked, the emerging, the conceptual, visits artist studios, can read (traditional) painting. So she's a big voice now."

Which was exactly why that car drove into the Suburban, the roughly 9-by-9-foot cinder block gallery, comically minuscule, that Grabner and her husband, artist Brad Killam, created 15 years ago.

Depending on whom you ask, Grabner receives one of a few familiar refrains: She's a community builder; she's rigorous; she's fearless.

"But sometimes now, Michelle can also function as a kind of institutional symbol. And her reputation, her rank in the art world, is such that I wanted to let some air in there, puncture that rank, make the Suburban more visible, while providing a critique — I wanted to make an argument that allowed us to see vulnerability again."

That's artist Dana DeGiulio. She drove the Buick into the Suburban.

DeGiulio's also close friends with Grabner, who once served as her SAIC graduate school adviser. But that's not to say Grabner had no reservations about DeGiulio's idea. The Suburban sits off Lake Street in Oak Park, a few feet from the back steps of Grabner's small, cream-colored home. Grabner, 51, is a reasonable person with a 9-year old daughter and two adult sons; the gallery, a labor of love, has an international reputation as a forward-thinking destination for inventive artists.

"Still, I liked Dana's idea very much," Grabner said. "It was a jarring gesture. Brad didn't think he could be there for it. But I liked it metaphorically, because after 15 years you lose sight of things. With the Whitney coming, I wanted to reframe stuff, re-evaluate. I hoped she wouldn't bring it down, but I knew she had it in her."

Indeed, DeGiulio proved methodical: To pay for the 1996 Buick, she sold a piece of Grabner's art, which Grabner herself had given DeGiulio as a present; DeGiulio even sold it to the gallery that represents Grabner, New York's James Cohan Gallery (leading to the awkwardness of the Cohan's calling Grabner to inform her a friend had sold back a gift). A week before the crash, DeGiulio — who says this was the most impersonal work she's ever done, "but I am a person, I have a history with Michelle and I felt trepidation" — removed four small trees from Grabner's side yard and built a ramp at the curb, to ensure the ramming went off smoothly.

Around 6 a.m. Nov. 17, she angled the Buick across Lake Street, hit the gas and backed into the gallery going about 18 mph.

"She actually caught air," Grabner remembered. The result unnerved everyone. DeGiulio said she couldn't make eye contact with anyone all morning. Grabner said her husband became upset (Killam said he wasn't, "just shocked at the damage"). The car tore a huge hole in one wall and buckled the others. The roof leaks now.

The Suburban's future is iffy.

"I thought carefully about why Michelle agreed to do it," DeGiulio said. "I got emails later that said I was a narcissistic terrorist and that I took advantage of the way Michelle will allow an artist to do what they want. But Michelle knows what she's doing. She let me do it because she is an artist and I'm an artist and, though I had to ask something hard and dangerous of her, Michelle is the kind of person who wants it to get asked."

The Whitney was closed. It was a Monday, Presidents Day. Light snow fell in Manhattan. Grabner moved cheerfully down Madison Avenue, then reaching the museum, shouldered open the heavy service door on the side, tugged off her winter hat and walked to security to gather her visitor's sticker. Though the Biennial was weeks away, the lobby hummed with installers, assistants, artists, the sound of crates splitting open, the buzzing of drills. A curatorial assistant, Elisabeth Sherman, appeared at Grabner's side: "From here, do you want me to tell you each day what artists are coming that day, that way you can prepare for each person?" Grabner smiled a secret smile and nodded: So many personalities involved.

Grabner had arrived a few days earlier to oversee installation, insisting she didn't have much to do this late in the process. The layout of her part of the Biennial (which is the entire fourth floor of the massive museum, plus pieces spread around the Whitney, plus an off-site sculpture from Tasset in Hudson River Park, 5 miles south) had been a protracted negotiation, settled months ago. But there were still details, and many of the more than 50 artists she'd invited to the show would need something: a second opinion, an advocate, an editor. The day she arrived, Los Angeles artist Karl Haendel wanted a wall color changed; Grabner evaluated the situation, time and taste, and disagreed. "I had to talk him down."

That Monday, in the lobby, a light and jaunty bossa nova poured from an open elevator: Union art installers were working with artist Jeff Gibson, another artist Grabner invited. His piece was a dreamy video of random consumer goods — combs, meat, sunglasses — shown on a flat-screen TV fixed to the wall of the elevator. Home Shopping Network-like displays faded in and out. Gibson's point was unmistakable: The Whitney is just a department store, each floor holding gaudy commodities. Grabner walked to Gibson. The installers cleared out. The two watched the video, and Grabner leaned in: "Whatever you're doing, it works."

The music went on and on.

From the lobby, Sherman said: "I feel like I'm on hold and I'm going to yell at customer service in a minute."

"Yes, very irritating," Gibson said, smiling.

Grabner's grin filled her face — until Sherman, going over the latest developments, remembered a few things. Another of Grabner's artists, whose work is a series of postcards pre-reviewing the Biennial, wanted a live model to hand out the postcards (Grabner puffed up her cheeks and blew outward); another was trying to decide in what corner of the museum store he would place his installation (she raised her eyebrows slightly); another wanted a message printed on the museum toilet paper.

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