Lisa Marei Schmidt (LMS): I absolutely love the garden of the Brücke-Museum. There’s a harmony to the combination of the building’s amazing design by architect Werner Düttmann, the museum’s collection, and its location in a wooded area on the edge of the Grunewald. We’ve also done a lot with the garden in recent years: it was redesigned by atelier le balto, and two years ago Constructlab set up the ›Waldraum‹ (Forest Room) where we now hold workshops and other events. We also have bees and we’re planning an artistic nature trail. As a museum with a collection, we are a preserving institution, but we also recognise our significant ecological footprint. The trail—for which artists will create climate-neutral artworks—aims to explicitly address these aspects of conservation. In general, the garden has inspired me to think more seasonally—entirely different things are possible in the summer as opposed to winter (everyone nods in agreement).
Kathleen Reinhardt (KR): For Georg Kolbe Museum, too, the garden is very significant. It frames the two New Objectivity-style buildings that form a listed ensemble: Kolbe’s studio, which is now home to the museum, as well as the residence, where the library and café are located. Back in 1928, when it was built, the property was in the middle of the Grunewald. The artist was keen on preserving various elements, such as an old forest path and the pine trees and envisioned an integrative workspace in harmony with the house and garden. Unlike the gardens at Haus am Waldsee and the Brücke-Museum, our garden also serves as a historic sculpture garden, featuring works by Kolbe himself and contemporaries like Louise Stomps, whose sculpture recently found its place there. In the coming years, we plan to commission site-specific artworks that engage with the garden. There’s also a historical fountain that, in my opinion, embodies many of the issues institutions grapple with today. You could say it currently features as a kind of ›hyperobject‹ for me (laughs).
Dominikus Müller (DM): Each of you directs an art institution established in what was once West Berlin. Lisa, you’ve been at the helm for five years, Anna’s tenure started last year, and Kathleen’s programme starts this September during Berlin Art Week. Your institutions are quite distinct from the dedicated contemporary art institutions you previously worked at. Not only are they geographically situated on the outskirts, but they hold unique historical significance as well. How do you navigate this complex blend of factors? What specific challenges arise from it? And how do these three institutions—which often get lumped together by those in the city centre—differ from one another?
KR: It’s true that our three institutions represent very different periods in history. Haus am Waldsee is a time-honoured old villa, the Georg Kolbe Museum represents the Bauhaus and the New Objectivity movement, while the Brücke-Museum with its Düttmann building is a compelling example of post-war modernism in West Berlin. Of course, one is always obliged to continue a certain tradition. At the same time, all three of us are looking at these historical foundations through a contemporary lens. This means that our focus is not only on making exhibitions of contemporary art, but also on looking at art in general from a contemporary perspective.
LMS: Actually, the Brücke-Museum is a museum dedicated to classical modernism, as it houses one of the most important collections of Expressionism in the world. However, my background is also in contemporary art, particularly Conceptual Art, and I bring that perspective to my current work. Our main focus is on the collection itself. We’re doing provenance research, digitisation, making holdings accessible—all of that. A lot of the work we do on a day-to-day basis doesn’t necessarily translate directly into the exhibition programme. Because of the collection, we’re also dealing with a difficult legacy. For example, the estate of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, who initiated the museum, includes a collection of about a hundred objects from colonial contexts. Even when it comes to works of classical modernism, there are motifs that require critical reflection from a contemporary point of view, as they may inherently convey a colonial perspective. All of which is to say that this engagement with the collection compels us to revisit these questions over and over again. We also invite contemporary positions that help broaden our understanding of the collection.
DM: Lisa, you’ve been at the Brücke Museum since 2017, meaning you’ve already completed your first half-decade at the institution. What insights or experiences have you gained there so far?
LMS: The first thing that comes to mind is the clientele, which is very different from the clientele that visits art institutions in Berlin’s Mitte district. When I started there, the average age was over 60. It was and is a process, and there is also a certain generational conflict when it comes to the question of how to approach the works of the Brücke artists and the museum’s collection. The exhibition ›Whose Expression? The Brücke Artists and Colonialism‹ generated a lot of discussion in 2021–22. You’d never see debate like that at a contemporary institution like Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart—Berlin, where I used to work. There, people would probably have patted each other on the back. But here in Dahlem, it goes right to the heart of the matter. I’m fascinated by the mix that happens when you bring in a new audience alongside the existing one. At our summer party, you’d see an 80-year-old grandmother from Dahlem in her pearl necklace interacting with a 20-year-old hipster from Neukölln. I think there are very few places where such diverse Berliners really come together. It’s a huge potential of these institutions (everyone nods in agreement). Anna and Kathleen, I imagine your experiences are similar?
»These institutions are definitely a total counter-model to the franchise white cube model.«—Anna Gritz
AG: Sure, it’s no different for us. While Haus am Waldsee does not have a collection, it was the first institution for contemporary art in Berlin after World War II. So, in a way, this commitment to the contemporary is intrinsic to the institution’s history and attracts an audience that interprets the term in different ways. Institutions like ours don’t exist in a bubble or an echo chamber. And that’s a great opportunity. Of course, we have our local audience, but for many others the journey to Haus am Waldsee really is a bit of a hike. The institution becomes a destination, a place to go.
CS: But wouldn’t you say that the distance—the journey you have to consciously take to get there—is also part of the problem? Because for the part of society that already has little contact with art, the hurdle is all the greater.
LMS: There is a large community around our institutions. In terms of outreach, we all work with local youth centres, retirement homes, and nearby universities as well. I think of it more in terms of different circles expanding outwards.
KR: The three of us are not here to appeal to a conventional Mitte audience. As Lisa and Anna mentioned, there is incredible potential in these institutions. The prominent historical context, in a very interesting way, allows for a lot of freedom and the opportunity to work around a different centre, so to speak. It allows us to be much more focused and concentrated in our work.
DM: So, the concentration stems first and foremost from the historical dimension, which almost forces a connection and makes the big, abstract questions immediately both concrete and tangible?
AG: Definitely, these institutions are a total counter-model to the franchise white cube model, that is, museums that you can open anywhere in the world and show the same ten white male artists until you don’t even know where you are anymore. Our institutions are by contrast particular venues with specific histories. Haus am Waldsee was originally a residential home. That aspect is immensely important to me because I’m interested in the lived realities behind historical works of art. I’m fascinated by the question of how artists live today, where the electricity comes from, where the money comes from, how staff can be compensated, what environmental safeguards can be put in place.
»The question of continuity and sustainable structural change is always a question of available resources.«—Lisa Marei Schmidt
CS: All three of you have a very feminist and diverse approach, and decolonial perspectives certainly seem top of mind as well. Wouldn’t you say that requires not only the creation of new formats, but a re-evaluation and dismantling of old structures as well? How do you go about doing that?
KR: This is a really big issue, especially for me. Lisa is a few steps ahead in this regard at the Brücke-Museum, both with her projects and with the integration of exhibition practice and academic research. We’re just starting to tie-in the art historical groundwork with broader social issues and transformations. My predecessor, Julia Wallner, gave me a kind of ›starting gift‹ at the beginning of my directorship: ›Georg Kolbe in National Socialism‹, a conference she initiated together with Elisa Tamaschke, our curator of collections. The conference proceedings will be published this winter. Building on and engaging with a complex and ambivalent history is something that all three of us—and I think I can speak for all of us here—strive to do, something we must always keep in mind: How do we deal with this sometimes violent history and draw the necessary conclusions for our institutions, also to make them relevant for a future full of challenges and uncertainties? Not only in terms of programming, but also structurally.
AG: … and of limited funding. As ambitious as some of the goals may be, the challenge of financing the next exhibition soon becomes apparent. So, change often has to be pursued within the framework of what is already being done. You have to maximise what you can get out of the regular programme. And then there’s the question of how to protect what you have, what’s already in place. Because it’s under constant threat. And if, for example, you want to explore alternative approaches to fundraising, what kind of dependencies are you exposing yourself to, then?
KR: Another big problem is that everything is always organised on a project-by-project basis. Here in Germany, we’re trapped in funding structures based on old models: an exhibition lasts three months—why not longer? Funding is category-specific and has to be applied for over a year in advance—so where are the flexible alternatives? Project-based positions involve short-term contracts—what longer-term prospects do cultural workers have? It’s a challenge to work flexibly yet sustainably at an institutional level, while at the same time fundamentally reworking and rethinking these basic structures. I think it’s an immense challenge for both city politics and the federal funding landscape in Germany.
AG: Berlin has also long since ceased to be a city of inexpensive housing and affordable studios. Many artists are currently losing the basis needed to do their work. In this context, an institution might also ask itself whether it should provide artists not only with exhibition space, but with space to work as well.
CS: That’s a very interesting idea, I am sure for other art institutions as well. One last question: How do you network and connect among yourselves? I see a cycle tour from institution to institution is part of the programme… Any further plans in this direction?
LMS: I’d say there’s definitely room for more, isn’t there?
AG: Haus am Waldsee and the Georg Kolbe Museum are collaborating on a project next year: We’ll be showing Gisèle Vienne, and the Georg Kolbe Museum is doing an exhibition taking its cues from Vienne’s practice, a presentation focusing on historical doll makers. Still, too often there’s a feeling of fighting a lonely battle, especially when it comes to the institutional side of things. So, there’s certainly room for dialogue in that respect. Maybe we should meet more often for leisurely walks by the lake.
Kathleen Reinhardt holds a PhD from the Department of African Art at the Free University of Berlin and has been Director of the Georg Kolbe Museum since the end of 2022. Previously, she was a curator for contemporary art at the Albertinum der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden, where she curated exhibitions and research projects including ›1 Million Roses for Angela Davis‹ and ›Revolutionary Romances: Transcultural Art Histories in the GDR‹, while also initiating major acquisitions for the collection. In addition to her curatorial work, she has taught at institutions including HBK Braunschweig, the Free University of Berlin, and the Berlin University of the Arts.
Lisa Marei Schmidt is an art historian and curator and has been director of the Brücke-Museum Berlin since 2017. She studied art history and modern German literature in Marburg, Amsterdam, and at Humboldt University in Berlin. She also holds a Master of Arts from the Royal College of Art in London. Previously, she worked as a curator at the Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart Berlin, where she curated, among other things, the exhibitions series ›A-Z. The Marzona Collection‹ (2014–16) and ›Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place‹, organised by the Dia Art Foundation. Her Brücke-Museum exhibition ›Vivian Suter. Bonzo’s Dream‹ was named ›Special Exhibition 2020‹ by the International Association of Art Critics (AICA).
Anna Gritz became the director of Haus am Waldsee in June 2022. After studying art history, she worked as a curator at institutions including South London Gallery, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), and Hayward Gallery. Gritz has been based in Berlin since 2016 and was a curator at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art until 2022. During her tenure, she curated a series of highly acclaimed solo exhibitions featuring artists such as Steve Bishop, Sidsel Meineche Hansen, Judith Hopf, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Michael Stevenson, and Amelie von Wulffen, as well as the group exhibitions ›The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue‹ (2019) and ›Zeros and Ones‹ (2021) in collaboration with Kathrin Bentele and Ghislaine Leung. In 2016, she worked as a curatorial attaché for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Since 2019, she has been a member of the acquisitions commission at the FRAC Lorraine in Metz. She also sits on the advisory board of E-Werk Luckenwalde.