The Art World Works From Home: Guggenheim Curator Alexandra Munroe Is Helping Ai Weiwei Sell Masks for Charity and Training Her New Puppy

The Asian art curator has been collaborating with Ai Weiwei from her country home.

Alexandra Munroe, the Guggenheim's senior curator of Asian Art. Photo by David Heald, Guggenheim.
Alexandra Munroe, the Guggenheim's senior curator of Asian Art. Photo by David Heald, Guggenheim.

The art world may be on lockdown, but it certainly does not stop. During this unprecedented time, we’re checking in with art-world professionals, collectors, and artists to get a glimpse into how they are working from home.

We recently caught up with Alexandra Munroe, the senior curator for Asian art and the senior advisor of global arts at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, who pivoted during self-isolation to curate Ai Weiwei’s limited-edition face mask project.

Read on to find out how Munroe bakes the world’s biggest batch of cookies, and why she isn’t very impressed with online art exhibitions.

Alexandra Munroe's home office desk, featuring one of the limited edition Ai Weiwei masks she curated as a charity project. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Munroe.

Alexandra Munroe’s home office desk, featuring one of the limited-edition Ai Weiwei masks that she curated as a charity project. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Munroe.

Where is your new “office”?

I am working from my office in our country house, where I often come for long writing spells. But this is different. Every day is a paradox of living through outrage and sorrow while also finding simple joys in my gardens and the ocean.

What are you working on right now (and were any projects of yours interrupted by the lockdown)?

Outside of my Guggenheim work, I am working with Ai Weiwei as curator of an online charity art project. Ai Weiwei’s mask series offers face coverings hand printed with his iconic images and sold exclusively on eBay for Charity to benefit the COVID-19 humanitarian and human rights emergency efforts led by Human Rights Watch, Refugees International, and Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. I was feeling helpless as the pandemic unfolded; this project has helped do actual good.

For Weiwei, the pandemic is foremost a humanitarian crisis. While in quarantine in the UK, where he is working on a documentary film about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, Ai turned to his usual medium, the internet, to provoke engagement with the global crisis. He galvanized his Berlin studio team to produce thousands of works, each one silk-screened by hand on non-surgical cloth face masks.

Ai Weiwei MASK. Photo courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Ai Weiwei’s masks. Photo courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Over 24 days of lockdown in May, Greg Hilty and I reached out to the three NGOs and gathered pro-bono support from our partner firms—lawyers, publicists, art shippers, a project manager on furlough, as well as the amazing team at eBay for Charity—to launch Ai Wiewei MASK on May 27. Within four days, we raised over $1 million. These funds will directly help the most subjugated communities impacted by COVID-19 across some 75 countries.

These artworks are for sale exclusively on eBay, and are priced at $50 for single masks, $300 for a set of four, and $1,500 for a collection set of 20. Please order yours now. As Weiwei says, “No will is too small and no act is too helpless.”

The masks are each packaged with a signed artist’s statement and a brief curatorial text. Writing in mid-May, I mused, “When protests return to our streets, cries for freedom will be muffled by gauze.” That premonition has come true.

Alexandra Munroe, the Guggenheim's senior curator of Asian Art, wearing her Ai Weiwei MASK. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Munroe.

Alexandra Munroe, the Guggenheim’s senior curator of Asian Art, wearing her Ai Weiwei mask. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Munroe.

How has your work changed now that you are doing it from home?

The biggest change is the very act of staying put in one place. Between March and June, I had planned to attend Art Basel Hong Kong with the Guggenheim’s Asian Art Circle patrons, was on my way to Guggenheim Abu Dhabi meetings and the Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi, and was looking forward to speaking at MAXXI’s 10th anniversary symposium and to attending my first American Academy in Rome board meeting. Not going anywhere is a shock, because I learn by taking in the world.

What are you reading, both online and off?

My favorite online publication is China Heritage, a journal of essays, archives, artwork, and translations produced by my great friend and regular Zoom-mate, Geremie Barmé. Recently, he has followed the erudite Professor Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University and translated his searing political critiques of the Chinese Communist Party. A typical preamble to an issue goes like this:

Xu Zhangrun composed this work in his Beijing “Erewhon Studio” 無齋. The name 無齋 wú zhāi literally means “The Studio That Isn’t.” “Erewhon” is a reference to the title of a novel by Samuel Butler published in 1872. A satire of Victorian social mores, the book was about “nowhere in particular;” “erewhon” being a reverse working of “nowhere.”….Of course, Xu Zhangrun’s essays, produced “no-where,” are really about “now-here.”

Since early 2020, Professor Xu has criticized how the government mishandled the pandemic’s outbreak and the disasters that ensued. Consumed by “mortal outrage and great sorrow,” Xu titles his address to the People’s Congress, “China, a Lone Ship of State on the Vast Ocean of Global Civilisation—the coronavirus pandemic and the political and civilisational prospects for the world system.”

It beats all the usual op-eds.

Have you visited any good virtual exhibitions recently?

It’s time to invent new ideas, not save the old ones.

Have you taken up any new hobbies?

I am training a very regal and rambunctious Labrador puppy.

What is the first place you want to travel to once this is over?

I can’t wait to stand again in the Guggenheim’s rotunda, look up at the atrium, and remember its mission: to be a temple of the spirit.

Laurie Anderson meets Jeremy the frog. Photo by Alexandra Munroe.

Laurie Anderson meets Jeremy the frog. Photo by Alexandra Munroe.

If you are feeling stuck while self-isolating, what’s your best method for getting un-stuck?

I call a friend and talk about ideas and work. Today, Laurie Anderson and I went on a long walk, six feet apart. I introduced her to the frog in our garden pond; he recognized a saint, and didn’t budge.

What was the last TV show, movie, or YouTube video you watched?

The only imagery that matters now is the nine-and-a-half minute video of George Floyd’s murder.

If you could have one famous work of art with you, what would it be?

I’ve posted a series of Insta videos dedicated to artists whose work I am thinking about in the time of COVID. The first was on Tehching Hsieh’s Cage Piece, the second was on Amar Kanwar’s Such a Morning, and the last one was on Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia. Everything is in your head these days, so art might as well be too.

Alexandra Munroe's Chocolate Espresso Cookies. Photo by Alexandra Munroe.

Alexandra Munroe’s chocolate espresso cookies. Photo by Alexandra Munroe.

Favorite recipe to cook at home?

Lots and lots of chocolate is the greatest antidote to sorrow.

Chocolate Espresso Cookies
(Makes 308)

9 cups all purpose flour
6 lb bittersweet chocolate
12 cups semisweet chocolate chips (10 cups melted, 2 cups reserved whole)
12 sticks unsalted butter
24 large eggs
9 tbsp vanilla
9 cups granulated Sugar
9 tbsp espresso
3 tsp baking powder
3 tsp salt

Melt unsweetened chocolate in double boiler with 12 cups of chocolate chips and the butter. Stir until smooth.

In another bowl beat eggs, sugar and espresso until mixture is pale and thick. Add dry ingredients and remaining chocolate chips.

Drop small ice cream scoop of batter onto unlined cookie sheets. Chill finished batter in freezer for 10 minutes before baking until firm.

Bake at 350 degrees for about eight to 10 minutes, or until cookies are puffed up and cracked on top.

Note: Undercook them a bit, keeping the center a little wet, as they will continue to bake as they cool. This way, you don’t burn the bottoms, and they are a bit chewy.

What are you most looking forward to doing once social distancing has been lifted? 

Getting on an airplane.

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