Giorgio Pace, a St. Moritz, Switzerland-based Italian art curator, is known for conceiving and executing unorthodox ideas that others might dismiss as undoable or absurd. Among his successes: a 2015 collaboration with the Parisian conceptual artist Pierre Huyghe and the self-described anarchitect François Roche, titled “What Could Happen,” for which Pace convinced Swiss Rail to run a 1910 private train with 300 hand-selected passengers — including the British architect Norman Foster, the collector Maja Hoffmann and the fashion designer Rick Owens — to a frozen Alpine lake for a performance with a naked actor crawling into an igloo to a soundtrack of recorded screams. For his 2011 show at the Chesa Planta museum near St. Moritz, “A Lunatic on Bulbs,” inspired by the Emily Dickinson line about her gardening habits, eight artists, including Rirkrit Tiravanija and Joel Shapiro, created idiosyncratic outdoor objects like a liquid-rubber-coated Ping-Pong table and a tire swing hoisted by solid gold chains. And for more than a decade, Pace, who earlier in his career worked for both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim in New York, has also run Nomad, an itinerant biannual design fair.
Even by his own ambitious standards, his idea to have the Tokyo-based architect Kengo Kuma transform a rowhouse that Pace inherited in a 19th-century fishing community on Italy’s Adriatic coast into a gallery-cum-museum is outsize. The project, which he says will be done in late 2023, is deeply personal: Termoli, an enclave of 30,000 residents in Molise, the second smallest of Italy’s 20 official regions, an almost three-hour drive across the country from Rome, is his ancestral hometown; both sides of his family have been prominent there for generations. For as long as Pace, 56, can remember, he’s been annoyed that Termoli and its surroundings — which include snowcapped mountains and remote hilltop villages in addition to the unspoiled coastline, but not a single five-star hotel — are regarded by Italian sophisticates as a bit of a joke, if they even know they exist. (There’s even a meme in which comedians compare the region to Narnia: #IlMoliseNonEsiste.) Pace is not amused: “So many areas of Italy are overrun by tourism and here is this perfect environment, so charming and undiscovered,” he says.
If he gets his way, that will change in the coming years, beginning with Kuma’s reimagining of the beautifully detailed, gracefully crumbling 750-square-metre four-storey 1850s house at the apex of Termoli’s main pedestrian thoroughfare. The grand residence, which came to Pace in 2018 after the death of his maternal great-uncle Arnaldo Sciarretta, a doctor, once housed one of the city’s first pharmacies, established almost 150 years ago by the curator’s great-great-grandfather Pasquale Sciarretta. “I think my great-uncle chose to leave it to me because he knew that, of all the children, I would understand it and make it the most it could be,” he says. Pace’s parents, Elena and Nicola, both nearly 90, occupy the stately 19th-century house next door, though theirs has a marble-floored entrance, oil portraits on the walls, fringed lampshades and velvet settees. A few cobblestone blocks away, in a building owned by his father’s side of the family that has been converted into apartments, Pace has already renovated a two-bedroom pied-à-terre for visiting artists, with a capacious terrace and views of the docked trawlers and trabucchi — traditional Adriatic fishing shacks on stilts — in the nearby harbour. Its decorative elements, including a Kiki Smith drawing, a Roni Horn photograph and stools by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, are from flats he owned in Paris and London before moving to Switzerland a few years ago.
For his great-uncle’s place, Pace knew from the outset that he needed to enlist a world-class architect who shared his vision for the house as a sort of 21st-century cabinet of curiosities, albeit one with a modern intervention. Then, last year, Pace was introduced by a friend to Kuma, who designed LVMH’s Japanese headquarters; the 67-year-old architect instantly saw the house’s potential as an art pilgrimage destination. Pace hopes Kuma will burnish the structure’s history and add a radically new top floor (the architect was set to visit the site to finalise the plans in late January, but his trip was delayed because of Covid-19). “Giorgio and I share the same romantic vision of reactivating the countryside through culture, preserving its identity and craft,” Kuma says.
Ultimately, the curator intends to turn over each of the 15 large, high-ceilinged chambers to pairs of creators — artists, architects, chefs — who will co-create works that will be exhibited for at least 18 months (the Albanian-born, Milan-based performance and video artist Adrian Paci has already started conceptualising his piece, which will involve music that echoes through the lofty spaces). The rooms, though now mostly empty, remain redolent of family gatherings across the decades; most still contain their original wallpaper, dolorously faded and peeling, and tile or terrazzo floors. Elaborate Murano chandeliers hang from plaster ceilings frescoed with ivy garlands and small inset landscape paintings. The mahogany architraves between the rooms bear forged-iron hardware; the heavy doors open and close with ease. A few pieces of furniture remain, marking the building’s past: intricately carved walnut beds from the 1860s; a chiming wall clock from the 1920s; a series of Thonet dining chairs around a vast oval table, both from the late 1800s. When he was cleaning out the dwelling, Pace discovered a pair of his great-grandfather’s embroidered house slippers in one closet.
On a recent chilly afternoon, it was a challenge for the curator to navigate Termoli’s narrow streets at his preferred pace: On every block, yet another distant cousin — the owner of a local restaurant, an accountant on her way to the office, a stay-at-home mom running errands — wanted to stop and chat. “I probably have 50 or 60 cousins here,” Pace says, adding that most of them don’t understand what he does for a living — they suspect he merely flits about Europe with his friends. Others may think it’s a bit mad to turn his ancestors’ historic house into a museum in a town that doesn’t really have a hotel, other than the cozy albergo owned by, of course, a cousin of his. But all that will change, Pace insists. In a few years, he believes, Termoli will evolve into the cultural enclave it was always destined to be, with his museum surrounded by luxurious new lodgings suited for international visitors who already frequent Bilbao, Spain, and Marfa, Texas. Also on the list of invitees: those wags who once reduced the region to a punch line. Ever gracious, he intends to be in the parlour, where his elders once stood beneath the frescoes of clouds and the heavens, to welcome everyone inside.