When I arrive at the apartment in downtown New York that Jorge Daniel Veneciano is subletting while the home he shares with his wife, the author and professor Rhonda Garelick, undergoes renovations, he suggests that we go for coffee. Veneciano has recently been appointed director of the Museum of Arts and Design (often referred to as MAD), and he is getting to know the institution and all the people associated with it (he officially begins October 3). But he is also thinking about what he’d like to do there—how he can enhance the museum’s social relevance while remaining true to its tradition and protocols.
“One of the things I like to do is enliven an institution,” he tells me. “Make it more desirable to people, to the public. But also to funders, to collectors who want to invest in an institution they can admire.” As a museum director, he’s interested in the dynamics of an exhibition and how it can be more exploratory, “a journey instead of this passive experience where you parade by objects on a wall [with] a summation about them,” he offers. Then there is his approach to education, a model he calls “The Curious Life.” Like the name suggests, it is designed to teach curiosity. “Not by throwing questions at [people] and expecting them to answer about what they see, but teaching them how to ask their own questions, which become informed by what they see.”
Veneciano isn’t vaguely hypothesizing about what works—he already has a proven track record at the Sheldon Museum of Art in Nebraska and at East Harlem’s El Museo del Barrio. In fact, when he started at El Museo, it was only open four days a week, but his creative programming boosted awareness and attendance, allowing the museum to remain open six days a week.
“This is the beginning of a new era,” says Michele Cohen, the chair of MAD’s board of trustees who is thrilled to welcome Veneciano to the museum. “His vision will enable us to further connect with our diverse city and visitors.”
Veneciano’s path here, to this career and success, has been unique. After college, he worked as a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, but left to join a doctorial program at Columbia University. “My intention was to become a museum curator with a PhD,” he explains. He avoided studying art history, however, choosing comparative literature as his focus. “I thought there was far more exciting thinking about contemporary art in that area than in art history.” It was during his time at Columbia, in 2001, when he met his wife, Rhonda Garelick, a fashion scholar. (In 2014, Garelick published the well-known biography Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History.) Veneciano’s professor, a close friend of Garelick’s, introduced them at a book party at Andrew Solomon’s home.
Garelick’s just started teaching a new semester at the University of Nebraska and has a couple of book projects in the works. Over the phone, she tells me that MAD was one of her husband’s favorite museums, long before he was approached for the job. “He opened my eyes to how great it was,” she says. “It offers objects to interact with that are intimate parts of people’s lives: home décor, fashion, jewelry. When you look at them and study them, you get a glimpse into how people all over the world live.”
“The museum has been nothing short of magical in its presentations,” confirms Veneciano, and Barbara Tober, the chair emerita and chair of the international council of MAD, is just as enthusiastic about Veneciano’s appointment: “[He] brings his own style of leadership, experience, and vision to our already groundbreaking exhibitions and programs.”
Toward the end of my conversation with Veneciano, he shares another one of his plans for MAD: “I’d like to see a little café somewhere.” At the moment MAD has a restaurant, but he’s keen on the idea of a satellite area where visitors can casually sit and sip espresso. “As you can tell, coffee is important,” he says with a laugh. And not just for its caffeine contents. It’s the social aspect, an activity that stimulates conversation. He clarifies, “Being able to talk about what you see at a museum is important. Art is nothing if not conversational.”