MUNICH —Recently, the Haus der Kunst (HdK) in Munich declared they would be canceling two major retrospectives of Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper, citing “cost reasons” after a tumultuous year for the storied institution. In 2018, its famed director, Okwui Enwezor, departed three years before his contract was set to expire, in addition to a bizarre scandal the year before that found the museum had been under surveillance by German intelligence services for harboring Scientologists.
After Enwezor’s unceremonious departure in June, the museum embarked on an austerity program over the Christmas holidays when it announced that the Adrian Piper show, scheduled for 2019, had been canceled, along with a decision announced in July 2018 to cancel a major Joan Jonas retrospective.
In a report published last week by critic Jörg Heiser in the Munich-based daily publication Süddeutsche Zeitung, he noted several interrelated developments since Enwezor’s resignation that hint toward possible collusion between museum management and an outside art consultancy firm.
After the museum announced the cancelation of the Jonas and Piper exhibitions, it soon after announced it would instead be staging a major exhibition of Markus Lüpertz, the eccentric neo-expressionist academic painter who, from 1988 to 2009, served as director of the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf.
Heiser claimed that HdK’s decision to host the Lüpertz show was done in a non-transparent manner, accusing the institution of returning “to the established figures of the art world, who are above all German and male” and wondering how an institution claiming to have insufficient funds could then claim funds were suddenly available for the staging of the Lüpertz show.
His answer led him to Walter Smerling, the head of an organization called the Foundation for Art and Culture Bonn, a private initiative founded in 1986 whose stated mandate is “staging exhibitions, curating collections, holding public discussions on cultural policy and shaping the public space.”
Smerling and his foundation have proven controversial in the German art world. In 1999, for example, through his foundation, Smerling curated a hybrid millennial exhibition entitled Zeitenwenden at the Kunsthalle Bonn, which ended with a loss of nearly €2 million (~$2.3 million). To cover the loss, the Kunsthalle had to sacrifice its purchase budget and even sell a Georg Baselitz painting.
Then, in 2012, Smerling was involved in a controversial Anselm Kiefer exhibition, also at Kunsthalle Bonn, composed entirely of work borrowed from the private collection of Hans Grothe, for whom Sterling worked as a private consultant. The controversy surrounding this show resulted in the dismissal of then-director Robert Fleck. Fleck’s dismissal, according to a report by Monopol, was said to have been at the discretion of Bernhard Spies, the 67-year-old former CEO of the Kunsthalle in Bonn who, interestingly, is known in German art circles as the “crisis manager” for his ability to impose strict financial controls over cash-strapped institutions. Spies was hired in 2018 by the HdK, mere weeks before Enwezor’s forced resignation, leading Heiser to wonder whether the institutional changes afloat at the museum was part of an aggressive privatization effort to dismantle publicly funded art and culture.
In an email sent to Süeddeutsche Zeitung, a German daily newspaper, Smerling admitted to having been in contact with the HdK and promised to provide financing for Lüpertz’s show, stating his expressed intention to “do his utmost to support the Markus Lüpertz exhibition. If the necessary budget is known, we will ask our members and ask for appropriate support.”
Adrian Piper, who has been living in Berlin for over ten years and is the recipient of the 2018 Käthe Kollwitz Prize, said in Süeddeutsche Zeitung after the announcement that her exhibition at HdK had been canceled: “I was very surprised that an institution of HdK’s stature would feel no reservations about making such an arbitrary public decision. Spieß’s behavior regarding Okwui, then Joan’s show, then my show seems to me to show no awareness of the unprofessional impression he has been making on his colleagues in the art world. I don’t see how all this can be good for the HdK’s long-term reputation.”
She added in an email sent to Hyperallergic: “I am devastated to have been robbed of the privilege of sharing this retrospective with the German public. Every member of the MoMA team worked so very, very hard to make it the best show it could possibly be; and Germany is so different from the US in so many respects that it would have been a revelation to everyone, including me, to experience the German reaction to it.”
For her planned retrospective in the HdK space, which was in still in its very early stages, Piper said Ulrich Wilmes had proposed the possibility of her engaging in a public dialogue with Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the current Archbishop of Munich and Freising. She said in the email to Hyperallergic that she was informed of the cancelation of her show by curator Ulrich Wilmes on August 28, 2018, who in the same message notified her that he had resigned from his position at the HdK.
Echoing this sentiment, many within the German art world have expressed their dismay by taking to social media to post concerns that current management at the HdK — now effectively led by Bernhard Spies as its commercial manager — have been undertaking reforms in an effort to commercialize the institution by partnering with an outside, private art consultancy firm, threatening any public or independent integrity it once had.
Joanna Warsza, artistic director of Public Art Munich 2018, a perennial organized by the city of Munich, commented in an email to Hyperallergic: “It’s important to remember that the city of Munich, and the state of Bavaria have different political preferences, on one hand a reactionary forces gain traction in Bavaria, while it was also here that, at the Hauptbanhof the Wilkommenkultur of welcoming the refugees started back in 2015.”
In a recent article published in Collecteurs by writer and curator Àngels Miralda Tena, she explains: “In a landscape of increased privatization, what is apparent is that art and culture as a social and publicly funded service is under threat.”
Jeni Fulton, the former editor-in-chief of Sleek Magazine and present editor of the Swiss art fair Art Basel, commented on Facebook: “A sad embarrassment for Munich. Markus Lüpertz just about fits the bill for a city clearly more interested in a narrow-minded, regressive perception of art than one that actually speaks to the present moment. Art for bean-counters indeed.”
What might a future look like in which the driving forces of cultural production are neoliberal reforms that leave institutions like the HdK no other option than to turn to private galleries and foundations for funding?
Constructed between 1933–1937, the Haus der Kunst was made by architect Paul Ludwig Troost and touted as Nazi Germany’s first monumental structure. The museum, then called Haus der Deutschen Kunst (“House of German Art”), first opened its doors on July 18, 1937, with an inaugural show of Nazi-sanctioned art it juxtaposed to modern art that Nazi leadership deemed “degenerate.”
In 2011, the HdK appointed Okwui Enwezor as director. Born and raised in Nigeria, Enwezor became known for challenging Western hegemony in the arts. By the mid-1990s, after he had risen to prominence for his role in creating a magazine about African art in Brooklyn, he later served as director of both Documenta11 in 2002 and the Venice Biennale in 2015.
In an April interview with The Art Newspaper, Spies placed the blame for the museum’s current €500,000 (~$570,000) deficit squarely on financial irregularities made during Enwezor’s tenure, claiming that while “Mr. Enwezor has been ill for the past two years, there were management mistakes made before and after. It was a long process. For a long time, expenditure exceeded income, and, at some point, that is no good. The subsidy is enough to maintain the house, to pay the staff and to have regular exhibitions. It is not enough to have a programme like the one planned for this year,” he said.
In response, Enwezor claimed “there was nothing wrong with the finances of HdK up to the end of 2017,” he said. “I am very proud of the work we did. To run an institution, you need not only financial support, but also moral support, and we have done a lot without either. I am shocked but not surprised that the enormous amount of work I did in Munich with a lot of sacrifice on a lot of levels should be besmirched.”
However, a report in the New York Times claimed that Postwar, a significant banner exhibition held at the HdK from October 2016 to March 2017, was a clear example of Enwezor’s financial woes. According to the Times report, the show brought together more than 350 artworks from 50 countries; but costs were much higher than expected — €4.4 million (~$5 million), instead of €1.2 million (~$1.4 million) — with ticket sales also not reaching expectations. Soon after, the Brooklyn Museum, who had initially signed up to host the exhibition in the United States, unexpectedly pulled out.
Enwezor later admitted that the museum needed additional funds to pull through. However, he said in an interview with the Times: “It’s not like in the United States. It’s very difficult in Germany. Someone doesn’t write a check for $10, $20 or $100 million,” describing the financial situation in the months leading up to Spies’s hire.
Though the state of Bavaria provides the HdK with the bulk of its funding, Enwezor stated he needed additional funds to support his plans, which in addition to the Jonas and Piper exhibitions, included costly renovations and an expansion of the museum’s west wing into a habitable exhibition space. Enwezor admitted that his team did not manage to secure any corporate donors, and had even lost a large corporate benefactor who had supported the institution with €400,000 (~$460,000) annually. However, he also stated the museum did manage to secure €78 million (~$89 million) in government funding for the planned renovation, raising a total of approximately €4.3 million (~$4.9 million) in donations between 2015 and 2017.
The latest situation at the HdK points to the increasingly problematic and plutocratic relationship between museums and outside art consultants and private galleries. While most visitors have grown accustomed to seeing government and corporate sponsorships at the entrance to large blockbuster exhibitions, there is an increasing trend today of art consultants and private galleries who have taken it upon themselves to step up funding of major museum exhibitions and productions in an effort to increase the market value of the artists they represent. Critics of this arrangement cite conflicts of interests in the form of a “pay-to-play” model, whereby finance commingles with curatorial decisions, which can, in turn, compromise the integrity and artistic independence of large institutions like the HdK.
What’s clear, however, is that the HdK is currently undergoing an identity crisis in the form of a delicate balancing act between commercial interests and curatorial independence. The museum has said that they plan on announcing Enwezor’s successor in early 2019. But as long as the public continues to demand large-scale, production and research-heavy exhibitions, it is unlikely this debate over funding and the often nefarious relationship between outside art consultants, galleries and museums — whether at the HdK or anywhere else — will dissipate anytime soon.
Hyperallergic reached out to Haus der Kunst with a request for comment three days prior to the publication of this article but has not yet received a response.
UPDATE: An original version of this article wrote that Adrian Piper had planned on engaging in a public dialogue with Cardinal Reinhard Marx as part of her exhibition at HdK. This has been corrected to more accurately explain that Piper says Ulrich Wilmes proposed the possibility this public dialogue.