Museums & Heritage

German museum under fire for ceding control of exhibitions to dealers and collectors

Gallery director says private sector must be courted, not alienated


Leipzig’s Gallery of Contemporary Art (GfZK) is facing strong criticism for hosting a series of exhibitions which gives dealers, collectors and corporate art collections complete freedom to display their works as they wish. Chris Dercon, the director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, describes the initiative, entitled “Carte Blanche”, as “exactly the kind of thing that we do not need in public galleries”.

The GfZK, which is a public-private partnership, receives much of its funding from public sources. It has now ceded curatorial control of half of its galleries until 2010.

Other German museum directors surveyed by The Art Newspaper have expressed disquiet at the exhibitions which will give commercial galleries such as Leipzig’s Dogenhaus and Eigen + Art the free run of the museum space.

The museum’s director, Barbara Steiner, defends the initiative, describing it as an “open experiment in the way that public and private resources can be used together”.

This month the art collection of publishers Leipziger Verlags, which owns the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper, goes on display (20 June-17 August). The company, which has presented an annual art prize since 1994, has work by Daniel Roth, Neo Rauch and Matthias Weischer, among others in its collection.

Other exhibitions will be drawn from the collections assembled by industrialist Arend Oetker and his wife Brigitte; consultant Klaus and Doris Schmidt; and collectors Leon Janucek, and Vivian and Horst Schmitter. The costs are being met by the private participants, who may display the works as they wish, although some have asked the museum to take curatorial control.

The series has caused concern among some museums. There are fears that it blurs the boundaries between public and commercial interests. Ms Steiner disagrees, saying the project is shedding light on an issue which needs discussing in Germany—that private museums are “manoeuvring public institutions out of the limelight”.

Dr Dercon, the director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, says: “You can raise questions about public and private museums, but what we need to discuss is the usurping of intellectual power by the commercial world.” Dr Dercon criticised some contemporary collectors, saying many viewed art collections as “luxury goods”. He adds: “We all deal, with private collectors and many, especially old master collectors, have been generous with loans, gifts and sharing scholarship, much more so, in fact, than many contemporary art collectors.”

He criticised the Leipzig initiative, saying “it may be intelligent [politically] but it is not intellectual and if we are trying to find a way to work with the private sector, this is not it. It is partly an issue of public responsibility and partly an issue of transparency. One of the biggest problems in the art world is that the same people can be critics, curators, dealers, crypto-collectors, even museum directors. I don’t think this is going to shed much light on what is an opaque situation.”

Other directors, including Jan Hoet of the Marta Herford museum, and Sean Rainbird, director of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, described “Carte Blanche” as “interesting” but neither wished to see the experiment reproduced in their own museums. Mr Hoet described the scheme as “rather ambiguous”, while Mr Rainbird says: “If you are not careful you will quickly be seen as a room for hire.”

One of the dealers taking part, Jochen Hempel, owner of Dogenhaus Galerie, admits he was “surprised” by the initiative. “It is unusual, and a little risky for them to let control out of their hands,” he says. He is paying E25,000 ($39,000) to show two artists, one of whom—Julius Popp—he represents. Works will be available for sale after the exhibition, but Mr Hempel says he regards the show as “really a charitable decision. It is a lot of work and double the price of an art fair.”

Other public directors have defended the “Carte Blanche” series. Volker Rodekamp, the director of Leipzig’s city museums, says: “The GfZK mounts exciting, sometimes even disturbing exhibitions which ask difficult questions. The ‘Carte Blanche’ series is asking just such questions about contemporary art today—who it is for and what are its processes.”

Martin Roth, director of Dresden Museums, says that he “doesn’t have a problem” with the “Carte Blanche” project and “there is transparency” in what the gallery is doing. “But you do need to be careful about the reasons for doing this sort of thing, it shouldn’t be financial,” he adds.

The GfZK was established in 1991, and is funded by the City of Leipzig, the federal state of Saxony and private sponsors. Together these provide an annual budget of E522,000 ($824,000) which covers its 11 salaries and operating costs, but not exhibitions.

“I believe that the museum can partner with the private sector, without making us subject to economic forces,” Ms Steiner says. “What happens if one of our collaborators proposes something we find ethically problematic? We would try to convince them not to do it, but if they insist, we would accept it but use it to start a public debate,” she adds. “Giving ‘Carte Blanche’ doesn’t mean we step aside from the debate. It means we are challenging our partners and they are challenging us in return.”