Berlin and Biesenbach, 25 years on

Klaus Biesenbach recalls co-founding the city’s influential KW Institute for Contemporary Art as a medical student


When the KW Institute for Contemporary Art was established in Berlin 25 years ago, the Berlin Wall had just come down and Klaus Biesenbach, its founding director, was still a medical student. What began as a student-run project in an abandoned factory evolved into a leading contemporary art institution, giving birth to the Berlin Biennale and some of Germany’s most acclaimed—and controversial—exhibitions. As KW celebrates its quarter-century and reopens this weekend after extensive refurbishment, Biesenbach, now the director of MoMA PS1 in New York, tells us what Berlin was like before it became an art hub and what he thinks the city has in store for the next 25 years.

The Art Newspaper: You were a medical student when you founded KW. Why did you switch careers?

Klaus Biesenbach: I was a medical student on a stipend but I also wanted to study art. Through opportunity, a lot of enthusiasm and coincidence, I ended up getting an internship with the cultural administration along with four other students, which led to us eventually co-founding KW. After more than a year at KW, I finally became an art student. But I had to continue my medical studies because that was my only income for years. So I was running KW and studying art and medicine all at the same time.

Which KW exhibitions are you most proud of?

Probably KW’s inaugural one, 37 rooms. We invited 37 curators to mount a show across 37 spaces, including a classroom, an attic, a toilet, a church, a former school and a hotel room. The other exhibition that I think was a breakthrough was Club Berlin in 1995, which was a 72-hour performance in an old opera house in Venice. Then, of course, there is the Berlin Biennale.

Why did you start the Berlin Biennale?

In the 90s, the museums in Berlin were not really showing contemporary art and there was no kunsthalle. So KW, as small as it was and as much of a ruin as it was, couldn’t give its artists the necessary attention. The reason for the biennial was to give form to a generation of artists that had been working there for several years.

What defined Berlin’s art scene in the 90s?

Germany, because of its unique history, gives art an importance that it might not have elsewhere. I remember when I was still at KW in the early 2000s, I organised a show of work by Jake and Dinos Chapman, Henry Darger and Francisco de Goya called Disasters of War. Both Gerhard Schroeder, the chancellor, and the then-new candidate Angela Merkel came to the exhibition and attended a 45-minute tour.

How do you see the city’s future?

By not gentrifying as quickly as other big cities, Berlin still has affordable studios, art spaces, storefronts and bookstores, and thus provides opportunity to try out new ideas. But it also still has some of the same opportunities from the time after the Wall fell—like the situation where a small group of students can establish something as lasting as KW. I am very excited to see what the new director of KW, Krist Gruijthuijsen, has planned for KW in the coming years.