Collector interview: Peter Maenz. “It felt like home”

The former Cologne art dealer has given, lent, and sold parts of his collection to Weimar, in eastern Germany



Long after Weimar ceases to be Cultural Capital, an innovation from this year will continue to enliven the city.

The Neues Museum Weimar, which opened last month, is the first significant museum of international contemporary art in the former East Germany. It is located in the Landesmuseum building, a grand neo-Renaissance structure just a few minutes walk from the train station.

The core of its collection comes from Paul Maenz, who was one of Germany’s leading art dealers in Cologne. Now retired, he has donated some 700 works of art by leading international figures of the international avant-garde, from the 1960s onward.

For the duration of Cultural Capital year, about a third of these works will be on view in an exhibition entitled “Strengthening wind from changing directions”.

The Neues Museum was designed by the most distinguished Czech architect of the time, Josef Zitek, best known for the National Theatre in Prague, and opened in 1869 as the Grand Ducal Museum. From the start, important exhibitions of contemporary art were held there (until a few years ago, the pillars still sported the yellow and blue paint from a 1923 Bauhaus show).

Like most Germans in search of national identity, Hitler had a special love for Weimar, making it his capital of the region of Thuringia. He personally laid the groundstone for the imposing group of municipal buildings known as the “Gauforum” that encroach upon the museum to this day. Albert Speer’s right-hand man was quick to make the museum his office, and the notorious “Degenerate Art” exhibition was held there in 1939.

Although the building survived the war intact, the subsequent government let the building decay into a roofless ruin which has been meticulously restored to its original state in the past few years.

In addition to the Paul Maenz collection which will be permanently housed there, the Kunstsammlung has purchased new works by well established living artists: Sol LeWitt has designed a six-part geometrical mural for the foyer; Daniel Buren has re-conceived the central stairwell as a stunning Gesamtkunstwerk, and Robert Barry has “inscribed” a contextual work in the museum café.

Mr Maenz, still very active in the young art scene, also guided the Kunstsammlung in acquiring a number of works by the newest generation of artists that includes Pippilotti Rist, Sylvie Fleury, and Berliner, Gunda Förster.

The Art Newspaper spoke with Mr Maenz at his home in Berlin just a few weeks before the museum’s opening.

Mr Maenz, you were one of the most important art dealers in Cologne for twenty years. How was it that you decided to start a gallery there?

Paul Maenz I am a typical post-war mixture. Born in one place, my family moved and was then evacuated to another place, and so on until I finally ended up studying in Essen where there was a very important art school. From there I went to Frankfurt. Then, during the 60s, I was an art director for an advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York. That is where I met artists like Sol LeWitt and Carl André. After that, I came back to Germany and was working in Frankfurt-am-Main. In the late 60s, I decided to start this gallery, but before long, the Rhine had emerged as a possible art centre so I moved to Cologne and opened my gallery there in 1970. I ran the gallery there for twenty years and then in 1993, I moved to Berlin.

You are always mentioned as being among the first notable dealers to have made the move from Cologne to Berlin.

It was different for me because I did not have a gallery anymore and was free to move. When it was decided that Berlin would be the capital, it was absolutely clear that I would want to be there.

I am from a generation where you had not done anything bad, but you had inherited the past. So when we started hitchhiking at the age of seventeen or eighteen, we were always glad to be taken for Scandinavians—the last thing you wanted to be was German! I think that is why many of my contemporaries developed a sort of internationality—whether in the arts or business or whatever—for which Germany is still known. To be international was to be as close as you could get to the rest of the world and that was something better.

But it is only after reunification and our getting to know that part of Germany which was once alien, that we realised that there was something “complete” about this culture. That is why I think that many of those who are now in their fifties and sixties will try to do something in Berlin or the New Federal States if the chance is there. And that is why it was natural for me to do something in Weimar.

Did you ever consider having your collection anywhere else—in Berlin, for example?

I never thought about having a collection anywhere, to be honest. When I first had the opportunity to go through this Germany that was unknown to me, it felt very much like home. It seemed to be like the Germany of my childhood; that part of the country had not changed much since 1945.

East Germany was so far behind, but in some respects it was also so unhurt by certain things that prosperity brings. As it happened, on my tour I first went to the concentration camp at Buchenwald which is really part of Weimar. So my first encounter with classical Weimar was very tainted, and somehow there, more than at any other place, I asked myself a lot of questions about this idea of national or cultural identity.

Being a very practical person, I normally like to do something, but what could I do? Afterwards, I went back and I was reading the newspaper on the beach in Spain when I learned that nine Lucas Cranach pictures had been stolen from the Kunstsammlung. The museum’s director, Rolf Bothe, lamented that not only had these paintings been stolen, but that they had been robbed of a whole century of contemporary art, by events in Germany itself.

It occurred to me that although I do not own a century’s worth, I do have thirty years of nice examples. I had never viewed what I had as a collection, much more as “sediment”, the dust that had settled during a long professional career in contemporary art. But I started thinking and made an offer.

How did things proceed from there?

Things happened very quickly. Dr Bothe, together with the city’s mayor at the time, Klaus Büttner, were very receptive and excited. Favourable coincidences also sped things along. The city had been wanting to reconstruct the building for a long time, and this gave them a reason—the building would be restored to its original function.

The next great thing was that Weimar got the City of Culture title for 1999. So not only did the collection have a home, but there was a deadline, with funding from the State of Thuringia to get it done by this year.

What were the criteria which shaped your collection?

The collection represents my own interests and the artists that I was working with rather than a particular direction. In that sense, it is highly personal.

It is also a result of various circumstances. One has to know that when you did a show of conceptual art or even Arte Povera in the 1970s, it was not exactly commercially viable. In fact, some of the very best pieces are in Weimar now because we were not able to find a collector for them in those years.

There were also instances where an artist might indicate that a work should not go into the hands of someone like Peter Ludwig whose collection was considered a bit insensitive.

Others were kept by the gallery because we did not want to sell them during the 80s when the market was so hot; we thought certain pieces should go to a museum. I also had the chance to buy things at reasonable prices that could be kept until other people saw how significant they were and their prices would reflect that.

How are your interests reflected in the Neues Museum?

The majority of the works are German and Italian, although there are many pieces by Americans—Sol LeWitt, Keith Haring, and American Minimal Art. The Italians are represented by, among others, Giulio Paolini to whom a whole room is dedicated. These works tie in nicely with Weimar’s intellectual connection to Italian culture during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. On the other hand, the opposing room displays a significant number of pieces by Anselm Kiefer who is, of course, a very German figure.

Are you still collecting?

Yes, though not in the same way as before. Now I would say that rather than “keeping”, I’m collecting.

Is the donation of your works a gift, a loan or a combination of both?

One part was a gift, the second part was purchased, and the third part is a permanent loan as a promised gift. The money that came from the sale provides the basis for a foundation for education and publishing. The main job, as you can imagine, is to educate people; to educate young people and to get them interested—to make them, to a certain extent, partners in this. But I thought that this is a public that’s essentially unprepared, and I see that as being the real job of the museum staff. It is not just about the pieces themselves; they are insignificant unless they are put to use.

You have been personally very involved in the whole process of setting up the museum?

I haven’t done much else in the past few years! The contract provided that I would be working with the Kunstsammlung on two things: the preparation and hanging of this first show as well as the publication of a three-volume scholarly catalogue.

Although I had promised them from the beginning that I would not tread on their toes, there are some things that just make sense right now. Because of my connections, I can get certain things cheaper and faster. In order to incorporate new artistic works like the LeWitt foyer and the Buren stairwell, for example, it helps if you know the artists and can talk them into it.

These new works were specially made for the building?

Yes, and they also seem to have a connection to Weimar as well. From the strictness of LeWitt’s work, one can link back to Bauhaus constructivism, and its black colour could represent the sad side of history (LeWitt is Jewish). Although I do not want to get too symbolic, Buren’s installation, with its alternating stripes of rough and polished material, could refer to the two Germanys and their dependance on each other, as well as to Weimar’s own contradictory history.

Then there is this connection between the Nazi Gauforum and the museum. Thomas Schütte’s bronze sculpture outside sort of “solves” this unfortunate but very significant connection. One keeps hearing this reference to the “Grosse Geister”—the “great spirits”, Goethe and Schiller—and that just happens to be the title of Schütte’s work that stands there, “Grosser Geist”.

It is quite amazing to walk into this building now after its restoration. Are you personally satisfied with how it has turned out?

No—never! [laughing]. It is on-going. I don’t like the curtains, I don’t like the lighting...Really, it is not my responsibility, but then on the other hand, I have worked with literally all the artists who are represented there. I know what they need, I know what they want, and I think that is how it will eventually be. If you remember what this part of the country looked like in 1992 and look at it now, then I think that this museum really is an achievement.