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Interview with museum director and curator Udo Kittelman: “The curator should never be more important than the artist”

The new director of Frankfurt’s Museum of Modern Art is self taught (he trained as an optician), curator of the German pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, and passionately involved in contemporary art

Udo Kittelmann, 43, the present director of the Kunstverein in Cologne and curator of the German Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, has been appointed successor to Jean-Christophe Ammann at the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK) in Frankfurt from January 2002.

Mr Kittelmann began his career as a curator at the end of the 1980s, working first in galleries, then organising exhibitions at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, the Kunsthalle in Innsbruck and at the museum in Mühlheim.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Mr Kittelmann, who had studied to be an optician, took over the direction of the Forum Kunst in Rottweil, then the Kunstverein in Ludwigsburg in 1993 and, in 1994, the Kunstverein in Cologne.

When he takes over from Ammann at the MMK in Frankfurt, he will have a budget of just DM1 million (£325,000; $467,000) for the activities of the museum and for acquisitions. Mr Ammann, who has had to lay off staff, has made sure that his successor will not have to do fund raising for the first three years of his tenure. He has made a series of agreements with private companies which will bring in a further DM2.4 million to the museum.

When he was curator of the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Mr Kittelmann chose to present the work of Gregor Schneider, transforming the interior of the pavilion into a claustrophobic labyrinth of spaces and elements borrowed from his small family home in Rheydt.

Mr Kittelmann talked to The Art Newspaper about his views on the German art scene, curating and how he himself was trained.

Marina Sorbello: You chose Gregor Schneider to “represent” Germany in the current Venice Biennale. Should his "Totes Haus Ur" be seen as a portrayal or symbol of Germany in 2001?

Udo Kittelmann: Gregor Schneider’s artistic work expresses a profoundly individual vision. For this reason alone his “Totes Haus Ur” in Venice cannot be seen as representing the State in any way. No artist has ever succeeded in transforming the grand, stately architecture of the German Pavilion into a place with a profoundly private atmosphere. His work is unique and original.

If it represents anything at all, then it represents itself. I find the whole issue of attributing national meanings to works of art very questionable. If one wishes to talk of territorial associations at all in Gregor Schneider’s case, then this can only be because at first glance his “Haus Ur” looks like an ordinary tenement building the like of which you might find anywhere in Germany.

Yet I consider it a great misapprehension to describe his work as being in a tradition running from Beuys through to Kiefer, as I have heard frequently of late. In his work Gregor Schneider is not dealing with history, or social processes; he is not making a political statement.

MS: What has happened in the arts in East Germany since reunification?

UK: In all areas of society things began to flow again where there had previously been stagnation—and the same is true of the arts. At present I cannot see any great changes in terms of artistic production here. I would have imagined, for example, that the major political changes in the East-West dialogue would have found stronger expression in the works of art.

MS: Since the mid-1990s Berlin has been regarded as Germany’s artistic centre—in terms of both production and display. And yet the most important German museums of contemporary art are still to be found in other cities such as Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Cologne, Wolfsburg, Essen... and soon Düsseldorf, too, with its planned “museum kunst palast” [see p.35]

UK: Everything takes time. Berlin, too, has further growth ahead of it. The debate about Germany's capital and what might be seen as a re-emergence of centralism should not blind us to the fact that there are very active arts scenes outside Berlin, too—as there were in the past. Unfortunately, at the present time these are being overlooked by the international media.

MS: What should private sponsors and what should the State do?

UK: The State must not shirk its duties to such an extent that the arts find themselves having to look for private or entrepreneurial funding to an ever greater degree. If this happens then my fear is that what might be called “high art”, or representative art, will be given precedence over less established approaches to an unacceptable degree. After all, these sub-cultures are the breeding ground for the future. These are the art forms that will become tomorrow’s “high art”. And if we starve them then we may have no arts at all in the future. And, no matter who you are working with, the freedom and independence of art must always be safeguarded.

MS: You belong to a group of curators, including Kaspar König, for example, who do not have a “traditional” art-history background. Ammann has described you as "highly competent, open-minded and not swayed by fashions". Can you tell us about your career as a curator?

UK: A traditional educational background may bring with it a broader, academic base—an acquired knowledge—but in the end, I am totally convinced, what is more important than anything is to have a great passion for art. Dealing with art and artists is something that requires intensive, personal input. When you come to the profession from a less conventional angle you probably draw on your own inner resources to a greater extent and approach things in a way that is much less inhibited, more willing to take risks. For myself there came a point when I was no longer prepared just to sit at a desk and study.

MS: How do you see the curator’s role?

UK: In the public arena the role of the curator has certainly changed. Often more is said about the curator of an exhibition than about the artists whose works he has put on display. I myself am very critical of this trend. The curator should never be more important than the artists.

In the ideal scenario the curator is the artist’s partner. He helps artists to achieve their ideas and dreams, supports artists in their efforts to bring their work to a wider public. On the other hand I do believe that curators should be able to draw on their own creative resources. A curator can establish new and original paradigms, showing a work of art in a new light.

For example, I have always tried to bring out the atmosphere that is inherent in every work of art and make this “aura” something that the viewer can connect with.

MS: How do you find out about what is happening in the art world? And what is the value of art today; what purpose does it serve?

UK: You simply have to remain attentive, alert and curious. You have to be open to the changes time brings with it, and you must never lose sight of the fact that the world is constantly changing. I have always been most interested in those artists who explore human environments and the ways they are designed in their works. In that way you are not so dependent on trends, on passing fashions. And on your question about the value of art I would answer: without art my life at any rate would be less rich.

MS: Have you already made plans for Frankfurt’s Museum Moderner Kunst UK: At this stage it is still much too early to talk of concrete plans. You have to prepare yourself, as it were, for the long haul, especially if you want to question or challenge established structures. A fundamental principle will be that the artists are our capital.