Free School for Art Theory and Practice

The Debating Museum. Barbara Steiner Interviewed by Dóra Hegyi


Being Critical. Still. / Seminar with Barbara Steiner


Dóra Hegyi: When you held your seminar in fall 2006 at the Free School for Art Theory and Practice, the Carte Blanche project for 2008/2009 was already being planned, although it was still in the future. You have never hidden the fact that the concept of Carte Blanche—to give the space of the gallery, a public institution, to private collectors and companies, among them two commercial galleries—was criticized by colleagues in the art world. You said that the reason for doing the project was to start a debate over the need for new collaborations now that the decrease of public financing of institutions is an obvious tendency. Now, one year after the start of the project, I would like to ask about your experiences.

Barbara Steiner: The past year was all above marked above all by debates over the Carte Blanche (CB) project. It continues to be the subject of lively discussions and even controversy, which must be understood as part and parcel of the project which we encourage. Certainly CB is more complex than is suggested by the populist tag line: “Leipzig museum rents out its rooms to private parties, who for a sum of money can do, or have done, what they like.” At the heart of the project we aim for public negotiation and feedback between the various interests and expectations of those involved in CB with a view toward communicating and exploring these. We keep up a continuous dialogue with our partners on their interests and ours.

This is what we did: we invited eleven companies, including two commercial galleries as well as private collectors and art supporters, to explain in practice the reasons behind their engagement in the arts. Each of these positions embodies a very specific attitude or approach toward interacting with art and all had already a kind of relationship to us or to Leipzig. The most crucial aspect from the art critics’ side is the fact that those invited choose the subject of their exhibitions and their curators, and assume the costs for their respective exhibitions and of the joint project. Interestingly, six out of eleven chose one of the curators of our museum. That the participants bear their own costs reflects the agenda of the project, namely private engagement and its implications, which includes the monetary aspect. The primary goal of the project is to find and create links between arts, museums, and private parties that foster a common commitment to art and artists, without striving for reconciliation between these at times antagonistic forces.

DH: The first exhibition of the project series Carte Blanche, which presented a selection from all the collections, companies, and galleries that had been invited, had the title “Friendly Enemies.” Could you elaborate on the intention you were referring to with this title?

BS: “Friendly Enemies,” the introduction to CB that we, the curators of the museum produced, refers to a text by Chantal Mouffe with the title The Democratic Paradox (Verso, 2000). “Friendly Enemies” then, are friends because they share a common symbolic space, but at the same time enemies, because they have different ideas as to how that symbolic space should be organized. It is not difficult to transfer this idea onto the various key players in the art world.

The initial exhibition was structured according to a system of keywords, such as those we are familiar with from Internet search engines. Working on this same principle, keywords were identified based on the press coverage related to CB. In this way, terms and names which seem worlds apart, edge closer together; expressions such as “museum corporation” are found next to “foundations,” “art” next to “equity,” “funding” and “patronage” alongside “sponsoring,” “economy” and “critique.”

The choice of pieces on loan from the CB participants also allowed us to take a look at the multifaceted relationship between business and art: Rosemarie Trockel’s Das Kapital (Alice in Wonderland) (Schmidt Collection), Christine Hill’s Services Slogans (Sachsen LB), and Jakup Ferris’ Save me, help me… (alpha 2000) all posited the economic situation of the artist as lying somewhere between ingratiation and economic self-exploitation. Hauptversammlung (Regierung der Welt durch das Kapital) by Andreas Gursky, Hanno Otten’s Gedichte der Fakten (both from the Oetker Collection), and Mark Lombardi’s works (Dogenhaus Galerie) were devoted to phenomena ranging from economic interdependence to conspiracy. The works of artists Neo Rauch, Matthias Weischer, Martin Eder (Leipziger Verlags- und Druckereigesellschaft, Sachsen LB, and Galerie Eigen+Art) and Muntean & Rosenblum (Janucek Collection), represented artistic and economic success in the art market. Olaf Nicolai (Galerie Eigen+Art) and Matthias Hoch (Dogenhaus Galerie, VNG Verbundnetzgas AG) produced work on the themes of surfaces, consumerism, and advertising whereas Rafał Bujnowski dealt with the issue of painting as standardized mass production (alpha 2000).

DH: It is obvious that the local context is always a focus and a starting point. Leipzig is a medium sized city, which was part of the former GDR and thus of the Eastern bloc. In the research project Shrinking Cities, the phenomenon, which Leipzig is also undergoing, was analyzed in an international context. In the project Heimat Moderne, GfZK cooperated with other institutions from Leipzig in investigating the heritage of modernity in the city. The long-term project Cultural Territories dealt with the Eastern European image after the turn of the millennium. How do you find and define the themes of the projects the GfZk presents?

BS: In 2002, the GfZK launched the first almost three-year-long research project, involving a series of exhibitions and discussions on the role of art and culture in post-communist countries, Cultural Territories. Since then the GfZK has done multi-annual research projects on the heritage of modernism (Heimat Moderne and Shrinking Cities), and on the role of artistic critique/criticality in capitalist and communist countries (dagegendabei/againstwithin). In 2007, the focus lay on collective and individual cultural memories and connected the social conception of the artistic means to these issues. In 2008/2009 the focus is placed on private commitment to art—as mentioned before. All research projects lead to a series of solo and group exhibitions, discussions, books, and teaching. The programs are planned two or three years ahead. The focuses are chosen in relation to the particular situation of the GfZK, its context, be it the role of the museum within a post-communist or global context.

DH: How do you see the cultural image of Eastern Europe today, does it still exist or is it disappearing?

BS: Well, the image is less exotic than it was. Ironically I see tendencies among home-grown people themselves towards playing the card of exoticism, but this is becoming more of a selling argument in a global competition now.

DH: I am interested in the way you define your programs: you define your programs well in advance, you define the concept of the mostly two-year research projects often two years or more beforehand. What kind of advantages does this give you and does this approach also have limitations, meaning that you cannot always be so flexible?

BS: It offers us the advantage of deepening the topics we find important and relevant. We are not as limited as we seem to be: we set up a framework, which gives us enough flexibility to react and to choose artworks/artists we don’t know in the beginning of the planning process. The topics are conceived as points of departure.

DH: The second part of this question concerns methodology: How far do you define the formats you want to use, the results you want to see?

BS: The formats are chosen in relation to the focus we set up. Actually we don’t know in advance what we will get. If we knew, it would not be worth setting up a research project, where we aim to find out about the things we are unfamiliar with.

DH: Carte Blanche, but the earlier projects of the GfzK as well, show that you consider public dialogue the main challenge for an institution. You are interested in creating debates instead of simply presenting solo positions or thematic exhibitions. What are the main goals of an institution when getting in contact with possible different publics?

BS: The principle of public debate and negotiation of potential common concerns, values, and areas of identification is one of the overall objectives of the GfZK. As many people as possible should be able to participate in the processes that this involves: artists, visitors, curators, critics, politicians, investors, etc. Responsibility for devising the programs and activities designed to appeal to different people or groups of people rests with a number of individuals. The centrifugal forces arising from these programs and activities, which draw upon the interplay between a specific, distinctive profile and an openness to divergent interest groups, are an integral part of how the institute perceives itself. The concept of the museum is then based less upon the idea of a place of conservation, and more upon the belief that the conditions of its own output are an area for public debate.

DH: What can art institutions learn from people?

BS: Well, I think the question has to be put the other way round, too. So I would ask: what can we learn from each other, accepting the competence and knowledge various partners bring in. To avoid misunderstandings, being open and interested in other people doesn’t mean that we give up our stance or, even worse, that we don’t have one at all. On the contrary, the precondition of such (public) debates is that the respective partners have a stance/standpoint on the things they find important. Negotiation starts from there.

DH: The GfZK has a specific, locally connected collection. It could be regarded unattractive, as it does not include the international big names, as famous collections do. How do you deal with this locally important collection? How can you upgrade artists and works, which are not immediately known by the visitor and cannot be placed easily in predefined value ranges ? What is the role of the collection within the institutions and way you work with it?

BS: From the outside, the GfZK collection looks incoherent: donations from the Cultural Committee of German Business under the auspices of the Federation of German Industries (BDI) range from artists whose works were partly influenced by the Bauhaus and labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis, to East and West German artists from the 1950s and 1960s. Artistic positions that were not permitted in any official forum in the GDR are linked with internationally active artists of a younger generation. Donations from collectors and artists, and purchases from the Supporters Group bring in further diversity. Nevertheless, there is less overlap in the collection than this suggests. The collection clearly reflects conceptions of values before and after the changes and circulates around the notion of the subject or around subjectivity.

Not all the artists are unknown: Rosemarie Trockel, Sarah Morris, Olafur Eliasson, Jorge Pardo, Neo Rauch—they can be considered “big names.” But of course there are others who are not famous: Michael Morgner, Hubertus Giebe, Klaus Hähner-Springmühl, and so on. Not many people know about their work. We decided to link the known and unknown ones in the annually changing presentations of our collection, which means we don’t treat them differently when it comes to the notion of quality.

The collection links Eastern and Western, male and female artists across generations. Artistic positions that were not permitted in any official forum in the GDR are shown next to younger artists of the post-communist era and artists from the Western world up to the present. Since 2001, the new acquisitions have been closely linked to the exhibition program.

Since February 2007, parts of the collection of the GfZK have been presented annually in a collection exhibition with a special focus on questions arising from the GfZK’s history and cultural context. The first presentation, “German Histories,” followed the ruptures in the modes of perception and their impact on collecting art in a time of rapid social changes. The exhibition of works examined the way the perception and evaluation of art has changed since Germany’s reunification in 1989. Showcasing conflicting bodies of work, the presentation incited much debate concerning definitions of value in art. In 2008, the second presentation was dedicated to the founding director, Klaus Werner. Werner, who played an important role in art in the GDR from the 1970s to the 1980s and after the changes, deliberately collected a lot of pieces which were not favored with official recognition. He sought to link Eastern and Western, local and international developments in art, traditions, and trends across the generations. The exhibition on Klaus Werner analyzed his work in the course of time and put the focus on shifts in the perception of his achievements. The “Revised Collection” was started in 2007 and it aims to promote a public debate about the criteria of collecting, various conceptions of artistic quality, systems of value, cultural consensus, and dissent, all against the background of current related debates both in a local setting and in the global context.

The conception of the museum doesn’t so much follow the concept of a huge storage facility as provide the ground for public negotiations about the museum and its social role.

DH: What was your experience with the Free School for Art Theory and Practice? You held the first seminar in September 2006, and around twenty people listened to you for two days. The idea was that we intensively spend time together, and all participants brought food with them, which we shared during the lunch break. This also gave an opportunity for more informal discussions. In the framework of the seminar we visited the Ludwig Museum and a cultural historical exhibition at the OSA Gallery, and we had great discussions with you. Do you find the format of the Free School inspiring for you as a lecturer? What advantages do you find a seminar series like that can have compared with other educational forms in the field of art?

BS: It was a great experience and I think such activities are very important to promote an exchange between the local art scene and people from abroad. I do consider the open framework as very important. People join because they really want it; they are not forced to participate and they can leave whenever they lose interest. Ideas can be presented, tested in debates, and linked to the experience of others. Apart from that, relationships have been established, which provide a fruitful basis for potential collaborations.

 The interview was conducted in December 2008 via email.


Dóra Hegyi is a curator and project leader of, and director of the Free School for Art Theory and Practice.