Jan. 18 2012 12:00 AM

Alison Gass is the Broad Museum’s first curator


Alison Gass is drawn to the backlit door, the hole in the garden wall, the place where anything can happen. When she was a little girl growing up in Boston, it was the Museum of Fine Arts.

“My mom and I would play a game: Go through the museum and find things that are red,” she said. 

Last week, Gass slipped through one of the most inviting doorways in the international art world. At 35, she was named the first curator of Michigan State University’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, opening April 21.

“I would like to bring art to the Broad that is potentially life-changing,” she said.

As assistant curator for painting and sculpture at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, Gass curated a New Work series that juggled politically charged images (Luc Tuyman’s stark Sept. 11 paintings) with grand aesthetic epiphanies (Allyson Schotz’s room-filling webs of prismatic beads) and wild installations (Nikka Rothenburg’s bizarre contorting-body videos).

“Artists are fun to work with,” she said. “They live in a world where they’re living their passion, doing every day what they most want to be doing. There’s something so inspirational about that.”

In a special section in 2010, The New York Times named Gass one of nine American museum curators under 40 to watch in the coming years.

“There’s a lot of beauty in the world as well as a lot of trauma, and I want art to reflect the whole experience back at you,” she said. 

Two weeks ago, Gass swapped the coastal art scene for a new home in East Lansing, with her husband, Alec Hathaway, and their two kids, 2-year-old Millie and 7-month-old Gus, with Riggins the dog and Tex the cat in tow.

Last week, to prep Millie for the strange white stuff that would soon cover her new home, Gass read Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day” to her every night. Hathaway, a San Francisco architect, is working long distance.

The plum Broad gig puts these life adjustments in perspective. For Gass, the chance to stuff a stunning stainless steel structure designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid with contemporary art is the ultimate professional seduction. 

On Jan. 9, she walked into the museum for the first time and sized up its angular, swooping galleries.

“I was immediately inspired to do commissions that will respond to the building,” she said.

“Instead of just fitting art into the building, I would like to have artists come and react to it. What does this make you want to make?”

From her Boston Museum days, she’s been committed to museum education for kids.

“That was a huge start for me,” she said. “Go through the museum, pick a painting you like, sit down with a pad of paper and draw it.”

When Gass was 10, she fell in love with a painting by impressionist Mary Cassatt. “It had a mom, a little girl and a cat,” she recalled. “It stayed in my room through high school.”

Later, her interest shifted from the painterly, colorful “isms” of the 19th century to the more dramatic art revolutions of the 20th and beyond.

“It became, for me, a more interesting way to think about the actual world I lived in,” she said.

After college, Gass was hired as an administrative assistant at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Right away, she started looking around to see who was having the most fun.

“I learned quickly that the most interesting thing going on was with the curators,” she said.

At New York University, she studied under heavyweight curator Robert Storr, now dean of the art school at Yale, and a big influence on Gass.

“He stressed listening to what artists were trying to tell you about their work,” Gass said. 

A big part of Gass’ job is to take abstract concepts like “light,” “power” or “time,” show how they are explored by various artists, then shove it all against the walls of practicality. Can we afford it? Will it fit in this room?

“It’s funny, but I like the logistical and practical constraints of curating,” she said. “Solving them is very satisfying to me.”

Gass’ contact list of artists — mostly her age or younger — is large and growing. She loves to present razzle-dazzle work like Allyson Shotz’s glass-disc confections, but doesn’t shy from political engagement.

At the San Francisco museum, she worked with painter Luc Tuymans, whose spare canvases deal with loaded themes like Nazi gas chambers and Sept. 11. Tuyman’s Sept. 11 pieces struck a deep chord in Gass, who was studying art history in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

“They’re actually quite beautiful paintings,” she said. “They looked like smoke billowing out into the street. But it triggers a visual memory of that day.”

Another Gass-curated show was devoted to the video creations of Nikka Rothenburg, wild visual riffs on the politics and rhythms of repetitive labor.

“She casts people with unusual bodies — sumo wrestlers, fetishists, and contortionists,” Gass said. “They’re installed in such a way that you enter into them. They’re creepy, unsettling and funny all at once.”

In the coming weeks, Gass will huddle with Broad Museum director Michael Rush to put together April’s opening shows and chart the museum’s long-term future. Nothing, from weirdness to politics to beauty, is off the table — except, perhaps, preaching. She wants to present art that opens a door and leaves it open for others.

“Anything that asks you to think is significant, however the artist chooses to do it,” she said. “Like it, don’t like it. Don’t tell us what to think — just ask us to think.”