EVERYONE FOR CULTURE! Community art associations (Kunstvereine): A German success model?
* Meike Behm (born 1966) is the President of the Kunstverein Lingen art association and Director of the Kunsthalle Lingen. Since 2014, she has been the First Chair of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine (ADKV), the umbrella organisation for about 300 German art associations.
Today, Germany’s approximately 300 art associations or Kunstvereine are an important platform for promoting contemporary art. Art associations serve as an interface between free project spaces, galleries and museums, acting as a springboard in the careers of artists and curators, and exist thanks to the private commitment of a population interested in art. However, more than anything, they provide an open stage for contemporary art and have been doing so for more than 200 years. Here is a forward-looking retrospective.
Ever since the first one was founded in Germany in 1792, art associations or Kunstvereine have formed the backbone of disseminating contemporary art. And today, it is, above all, the citizens interested in art whose commitment and financial support have been responsible for keeping German Kunstverein art associations alive. They organise exhibitions and shape the life of the Kunstverein, which includes openings, public discussions with artists, lectures, trips and tours. Over the past 50 years in particular, Kunstvereine have developed into a driver of experimental art production of a diversity that is unique in the world.
A number of social upheavals - the French Revolution, the fall of National Socialism, the reform and protest movements of the 1968 era and the reunification of Germany in 1989 - have each resulted in waves of newly founded Kunstvereine. A glance at a map of Germany showing the locations of art associations demonstrates the fact that their scope today reaches from major cities all the way to rural areas. Their actions follow a widely formulated sense of educational duty, as the presentation of regionally and even internationally known artists promotes and opens up a dialogue on a wide variety of contemporary subjects.
Kunstvereine have given numerous artists the chance for their first solo exhibitions, often paving the way to larger institutions and onto the art market. Thus, for example, in 2008, the Kunstverein Nuremberg provided such an opportunity to the Georgian artist Thea Djordjadze (born 1971), and the Kunstverein Hamburg hosted an exhibition for Francis Bacon (1909-1992) in 1965. Several artists from Russia also debuted successfully in the Kunstvereine, for example, the Berlin and Moscow-based Vadim Zakharov with his highly acclaimed exhibition “The Last Walk Through Elysian Fields” (1995) at the Kolnischer Kunstvereine. The head of the Kunstverein at the time, Udo Kittelmann, later went on to success as the director of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and showed Zakharov in 2013, with his installation “Danaë” at the Venice Biennale as the first non-Russian to curate the Russian Pavilion.
Often, and not only in the case of Zakharov's exhi- biti on in Cologne, location-specific works are created specifically for the spaces offered by a Kunstverein, such as the room-filling walk-in installation by Sarah Pelikan (born 1947) at the Kunstverein Lingen in 2012. In contrast to museums, which today are bound by the need to attract larger numbers of visitors, the Kunstverein exhibition programme is not governed by trends and quotas. Then, as now, the programmes have been much more sensitive to socially relevant themes and also often integrate with other subject areas. The Kunstvereine have worked closely with local educational institutions and thus have also brought art to visitors who are not among the classic “Bildungsbürgertum”, the traditionally educated middle-class intellectuals whose ranks were responsible for founding the first Kunstvereine.
A look at the era in which the first associations of citizens interested in art emerged as Kunstvereine reveals the enlightening spirit of this tradition. In the second half of the 18th century, Germany loses sight of the idea of cultivating art. The ideas of the Enlightenment and the revolutionary era of the French Revolution dominated the thinking of the bourgeoisie and allowed their relationship with art to go cold. Those who commissioned artworks were almost exclusively from the nobility or the clergy, both of which barred large parts of the population from access to exhibitions and interaction with the art of their time. The first Kunstvereine were founded in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a countermeasure to the positions of power of the clergy and nobility (1792 in Nuremberg, 1817 in Hamburg, 1818 in Karlsruhe). The focus was already changing to the promotion and further development of “contemporary art”, understood as art contemporary with its own time. The practical knowledge, expertise and ideas of the artists were to be promoted to the general public and thus to be of service to them. In Nuremberg, the art dealer and patron of the arts Johann Friedrich Frauenholz, the painter Johann Peter Rossler and the philosopher and physician Johann Benjamin Erhard joined 15 like-minded individuals to form the first German Kunstverein, a group “for the cultivation of art in Nuremberg.” Their stated purpose is “(...) through engagement and mutual exchange of opinions to make the art of this time and place of greater use to the general public, to bring artists in contact with artists and, in spite of the modest scope of involvement, to identify means that might be favourable to the flourishing and resumption of the art of this time and place” [translation adapted]. These words already address aspects that today still characterise the Kunstverein: their benefit to the public, the promotion of exchange between artists and all other citizens as well as the cultivation of contemporary art.
At the time around 1800, museums, galleries and auction houses as we know them today did not yet exist, which meant that the Kunstvereine accounted for a substantial share of the art market. This can be seen in the principle of the “lottery” system that was in place at the time: The members of a Kunstverein were able, and even required, to purchase shares in the Kunstverein; this generated its capital. “This capital was used to purchase artworks that were then transferred to members' ownership in a lottery system, usually on an annual basis. A certain number of the artworks were often retained in the interest of building the Kunstverein’s own collection. The more shares or tickets a member had purchased, the better his or her chances of receiving ownership of a painting purchased by the Kunstverein. The odds of winning were, in any case, not very high, so those left empty-handed received a print as a consolation prize called a ‘Nietenblatt'. The economics of this lottery system were intended to provide upwardly socially mobile citizenry with access to art (...); the aim was to undercut the high price of art resulting from the purchasing monopoly of the nobility, the royal court and a small group of bourgeois elite.” This previously high share of the art market has changed with regard to the Kunstvereine, as even though many offer an nual issues (Jahresgaben) for sale, the pricing policies by and large bypass the art market.
Additional Kunstvereine were founded in the first half of the 19th century (for example, Dresden in 1828, Halle in 1834) with an impressive line-up of artists exhibited that are today part of the history of art. In 1896, the Hamburg Kunstverein presented a solo exhibition featuring works by Adolph Menzel and “a professor from Dresden” named Caspar David Friedrich was presented in 1826 at a group exhibition with three paintings, including his famous “The Sea of Ice” (“Eismeer”) (1823/24).
In the second half of the century, the significance of the Kunstvereine began to wane as a result of the founding of museums and the emergence of the independent art market. Corporate patriarchs, captains of industry and bankers became active as collectors. In addition, an increasing number of artists abandoned the Kunstvereine because many of them felt that the share purchase and lottery system restricted their creative freedom, as the formats and themes of their art had to suit the taste of the Kunstverein members. A form of art enterprise was created in which the artists primarily apply aesthetic standards generated internally in the art, which we refer to today as Surrealism, Expressionism, Impressionism, Dadaism, Cubism and New Objectivity.
As the National Socialists came to power in 1933, Kunstvereine that asserted their intent to provide citizens with art that critically addressed the issues of the time were either banned or were forced to display art that was then exploited for propaganda purposes to celebrate ideologies from the far right. In this context, the Kunstverein Over- beck-Gesellschaft - Verein von Kunstfreunden in Lübeck deserves a closer look as an example of how many Kunstvereine were instrumentalised under National Socialism. Since its founding in 1918, the Lübeck Kunstverein had exhibited Emil Nolde, Max Slevogt, Maria Slavona and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff among others. The presiding director in 1933, Carl Georg Heise, was notified on September 27 of his dismissal, effective December 31, 1933. His opponents accused him of “having asserted a Marxist-Bolshevist direction.” Heise made an effort, “also in the interest of the Overbeck-Gesellschaft”, to finally resolve the question of “whether my positive engagement on behalf of German Expressionist art (Nolde, Barlach), from which I naturally cannot refrain, is to be used as the pretext to render the continuation of my position in Lübeck permanently im- possible.” His efforts were in vain. On December 4, 1933, during the last general meeting in which Carl Georg Heise participated, the Board was expanded to include Nazi party members and a resolution was passed to incorporate the Kunstverein in Lübeck's oldest charitable organisation, the Society for the Furtherance of Charitable Activities (“Gesellschaft zur Beforderung Gemeinnütziger Tätigkeit”). The forcible indoctrination of the Overbeck-Gesellschaft was completed by the election of government officer Hans Wolff as director of the Overbeck-Gesellschaft. Wolff was a key figure in the National Socialist political machine in Lübeck and also took over as head of the Kunstverein. In alignment with the ideology of the time, sculpture was elevated to “the main conveyor of artistic expression in our age” and individual exhibitions featuring Fritz Behn (1935) and Richard Scheibe (1941) were presented. A critic summarised the 82 exhibitions held from 1934 until 1943 as “bland”. The exhibition activities of the Overbeck-Gesellschaft ended under National Socialism in 1944.
In the postwar period, many Kunstvereine presented exhibitions featuring artists whose work had been condemned by the Nazis as “degenerate”, building a bridge to their previous spirit and filling the gap that had emerged during the National Socialist period. Thus, for example, in 1946, the Heidelberg Kunstverein put on an exhibition dedicated to Karl Hofer, his first after 1945. The goal during the 1960s was to connect with the international avant-garde: German Kunstvereine organised exhibitions featuring representatives of the Informal, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimal and Concept art genres. In 1966, the Kunstverein Freiburg presented works by the American Cy Twombly (1928-2011); in 1961, the North Rhine-Westphalian Kunstverein in Dusseldorf dedicated an individual exhibition to probably the most influential representative of Abstract Expressionism of the New York School, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956).
More than anything, it was this internationalisation of the Kunstvereine and the ensuing lack of attention to local art that earned them criticism, and not only from artists. As the leftist student movements came to the fore in the late 1960s, demands were voiced regarding the “political function of culture”. The Kunstvereine were “denounced as playgrounds for snobs, accused of elitist and bourgeois machinations, suspected of collusion with the art market and of distracting attention from the social and political situation; in short, they were made out to be a visible enemy figure of the bourgeoisie, a rejection of which was a source of strength and unity for the disparate and anti-authoritarian revolt.”
Artforms changed in these turbulent times and the Kunstvereine provided a platform for the new forms of expression. In 1970, the Cologne Kunstverein presented the exhibition “Happening & Fluxus,” legendary by today's standards, in which the artists Joseph Beuys, Günter Brus, Allan Kaprow, Charlotte Moorman, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, Ben Vautier and Wolf Vostell participated, an early liaison of the most important representatives of this important movement in terms of art history. The two-day festival, which, among other things, presented live cows on the Kunstverein's premises, was criticised by the locals for the perceived cruelty to animals and received heavily negative reviews in the press. “Im Kalb liegt die Kunst der Kuh” (“The art of the cow is in the calf”), joked the headline of a review in the national news weekly “Die Zeit”. The provocative event split the Kunstverein itself: 270 members resigned in reaction to the exhibition, which, at the same time, attracted new members. In spite of criticism and rejection, the show had made history in the art world. In the 1970s, the innovative format of video art also arrived in Kunstvereine and, in 1976, Cologne's Kölnischer Kunstverein once again presented a ground-breaking show: the first individual exhibition in Germany of media artist Nam June Paik, who is world-famous today.
The elimination of the inner-German frontier in 1989 also resulted in a wave of newly founded and reopened Kunstvereine in East Germany. Here, Kunstvereine like those in Gera and Chemnitz had, for the most part, only existed until the Second World War. In 1947, on the order of the military administration in the Soviet sector (Order 41 of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany) all cultural organisations, including the Kunstvereine, were outlawed (with the exception of state organisations such as the Association of Visual Artists of the GDR (“Verband Bildender Künstler der DDR/VBK”)), a regulation that was retained by the GDR successor state. The populist-organised cultural form of the Kunstverein was not consonant with the party dictatorship. “Art was regarded as a ‘symbolic solution' of societal contradictions in the official cultural policy of the GDR's state of workers and farmers. Art was expected to illustrate a Marxist-Leninist understanding of history and was to serve the moral, political and aesthetic education of the population.” This demand was not compatible with the freedom-loving ideals of the cultivation of art. Kunstvereine in Chemnitz and Halle did not resume their activities until after 1989.
Today, the history of the Kunstverein is still in flux. Given the fact that museums are also increasingly showing the works of young artists and developing experimental formats, the question arises as to whether or not they will still function in the role of discoverers and will still be “places for the future of art”. The answer to that is a vehement yes. Kunstvereine still have the direct and unbureaucratic means to maintain direct contact with artists in today's world and to provide the citizens of their respective cities with a space for open discussion through up-to-date content, topics such as migration and identity, postcolonialism, digitalisation, capitalism, neo-liberalism and the equality of all genders. They take on a role in the promotion of artists, as these are often discovered by galleries or museums through exhibitions in Kunstvereine, as was the case in recent years with Jagoda Bednarsky and Judith Hopf, to name only two of many examples. Put concisely, if there is still a ‘bourgeoisie’ today, it can be seen based on the lives and activities of the Kunstvereine. They have been at the very heart of their respective eras since 1792 and, for more than 200 years, can certainly be regarded as the model of success.
- Cf. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunstverein_in_Hamburg and www.kunstvereinnuernberg.de
- Cf. https://kunstvereinnuernberg.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/die_geschichte_des_kunstvereins.pdf.
- Christoph Behnke, 'Zur Gründungsgeschichte Deutscher Kunstvereine', in: Bernd Milla, Heike Munder (Eds.), “Tatort Kunstverein - eine kritische Überprüfung eines Vermittlungsmodells.” Nuremberg 2001. p. 11 (translation adapted).
- A Jahresgabe is a small-series or unique artwork that - often at the end of a year - is offered by a Kunstverein to its members for purchase. They are produced in close collaboration with the artist, to whom the Kunstverein considers itself obligated. The prices are below usual market value and the revenue is shared with the artist.
- Cf. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunstverein_in_Hamburg.
- Jenns Howoldt, 'Die Over- beck-Gesellschaft im Nationalsozialismus', in: Oliver Zybok (Ed.), “ALLE. Künstlerinnen und Künstler in der Overbeck-Gesellschaft Lübeck 1918-2018,” Bielefeld 2018, p. 143 (translation adapted).
- Cf. ibid (translation adapted).
- Cf. ibid.
- Cf. ibid. p. 147.
- Cf. ibid. p. 149.
- Cf. Walter Grasskamp, 'Die schwierige Öffentlichkeit. Die westdeutschen Kunstvereine nach 1945', in: “Neue Nationalgalerie (Ed.): 1945-1985. Kunst in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland,” Berlin 1985. p. 662-667.
- Cf. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heidelberger_Kunstverein.
- Cf. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunstverein_Freiburg. and https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunstverein_f%C3%BCr_die_Rheinlande_und_We....
- Cf. ibid. p. 664.
- Quoted from ibid. p. 665 (translation adapted).
- Cf. https://koelnischerkunstverein.de/institutionsinfos/geschichte/.
- Cf. https://koelnischerkunstverein.de/institutionsinfos/geschichte/. In 1980, director Wulf Herzogenrath had co-founded and was the First Chairman of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine (ADKV).
- Cf. Günther Meissner, 'Unsterile in der DDR', in: Peter Gerlach (Ed.), “Vom realen Nutzen idealer Bilder, Kunstmarkt und Kunstvereine,” Aachen 1994, P. 279-376.
- Quoted from: Uta Grundmann, 'Die DDR-Kunst im Kontext von Geschichte, Politik und Gesellschaft', in: “Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Ed.), Dossier Autonome Kunst in der DDR,” accessible in the internet at: https://www.bpb.de/geschichte/deutsche-geschichte/autonomekunst-in-der-ddr/ (translation adapted).
- Cf. the history of the Kunstverein “Neue Chemnitzer Kunsthütte e.V.” at https://www.neue-saechsische-galerie.de/kunsthuette-e-v.html and of the Kunstverein Halle at https://m.halle.de/de/Kultur/Freizeit/m.aspx?RecID=1165.
- Heiner Schepers, 'Kunstvereine sind Orte für die Zukunft der Kunst', in: Bernd Milla, Heike Munder (Eds.), “Tatort Kunstverein - eine kritische .berprüfung eines Vermittlungsmodells.” Nuremberg 2001. p. 27-31. Until 2008, Heiner Schepers was president of the Kunstverein Lingen and director of the Kunsthalle Lingen and First Chairman of the ADKV from 1995 until 2003.
© City Archive of Nuremberg
© City Archive of Nuremberg
Watercolour on cardboard
© TU München
© TU München
Photo: Stephan Baumann
Photo: Stephan Baumann
Photo: Fred Dott
Photo: Ernst Scheel, Los Angeles. Getty Research Institute (© Petra Vorreiter)
Photo: Helge Mundt
Photo: Kunstverein Dresden
© Overbeck Society, Lübeck
© Overbeck Society, Lübeck
© Overbeck Society, Lübeck
Curators Stefanie Kleefeld and Ulla Rossek
Photo: Fred Dott
Curator Stefanie Kleefeld. Photo: Fred Dott
Photo: Fred Dott
Photo: Marc Doradzillo
Photo: Boris Becker
© Kunstverein Giessen
© Kunstverein Giessen
© Kunstverein Giessen
Newspaper article on the establishment of a “Kunstverein for Halle and its Surroundings”, Hallesches Wochenblatt. 1834