What the World Can Learn from Germany’s Small-Scale Institutions

Francesca Gavin
Apr 8, 2015 9:26PM

Stewart Uoo, Security Window Grill VII, 2014 (detail) from "Inhuman" at the Fridericianum Kassel. Courtesy of Stewart Uoo and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Köln.

The established canon of art history would like you to think that art is a story about big capital cities—a narrative of financial and intellectual art centers, from Paris to New York to London to Florence. Yet the contemporary German art scene refuses to be completely tied to one place. The Kunsthalle culture so admired in Germany has dispersed things—so that Cologne, Munich, Düsseldorf, Kassel, and Frankfurt are still relevant voices in the country’s art scene alongside Berlin. The question is: Why?

A good example is the Fridericianum in Kassel. It was established in 1779 as Europe’s first public museum and is the central space for Documenta every five years. The current artistic director, Susanne Pfeffer, left Berlin—where she had been curator of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art—to come to a decidedly smaller city. Yet her exhibitions so far, such the recent Paul Sharits retrospective and the current “Inhuman” with artists including Oliver Laric, Dora Budor, and Nicolas Deshayes, have been garnering serious international interest.

(left to right) Oliver Laric, The Hunter and His Dog, 2014 (detail). Photo: © Gunter Lepkowski, courtesy Private Collection, Berlin.  Dora Budor, The Architect, Infected at the Bone, 2014. Courtesy of Dora Budor, New Galerie, Paris/New York and Noirmont Art Production, Paris. Both from "Inhuman" at the Fridericianum Kassel.


There are many different kinds of institutions in Germany: traditional collecting museums; a type of institution known as a Kunsthalle or Kunsthaus, which displays temporary shows; and the Kunstverein, institutions often smaller in scale that put on experimental exhibitions. Many of these regional spaces have a long history. The Kölnischer Kunstverein in Cologne, for example, was established in 1839 and has recently shown younger artists like Darren Bader and Annette Kelm.

The reason why this regional approach flourishes was reinforced in the structure of post-war Germany, as Dr. Friedrich Meschede, director of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, notes. “The decentralization of German art in the federal republic is due to our constitution. In 1949, they wanted to avoid, as it was during the Nazi regime, centralized cultural politics. That meant the responsibility for culture was given to each county. Today France has one minister of culture. Germany has one for each county,” he explains.

Johannes Wald, Studying the Greeks’ Grace, 2010. Installation view Kunsthalle Bielefeld 2015. Photo: Ingo Bustorf.

The Kunsthalle initially emerged in the 1830s, around the time the church’s relationship to art was being destroyed. But Meschede explains that the Kunsthalle model was mainly developed over the last 50 years “into a very interesting engagement in the contemporary.” Meschede’s own approach at the Kunsthalle Bielefeld carries on a legacy from his first job as assistant to Kasper König and Klaus Bussmann at Skulptur Projekte Münster (Sculpture Projects Münster). “Site specificity was a big issue that really attuned my thinking about shows,” he says.

It’s not just the art system that is different in Germany—it’s the country’s structure. “Every federal state has its own laws and its own regulations. That’s totally different, I think, from Great Britain, France, and Italy and other countries,” Gregor Jansen, director of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, points out. That cultural history still impacts the approach of institutions like his. “If you look back again to the ’60s, there was this very close relationship between Düsseldorf, Cologne, Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent. There was a beginning of a new thinking around production and sociopolitical ideas and an anti-institutional movement. And of course this new situation of the Cold War.” The Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, as many other similar spaces, was set up against this background and has retained its progressive approach.

Wu Tsang, The Looks, 2015. Currently on view in "Real Humans" at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. Photo: Ernst van Deursen. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin and Clifton Benevento, New York, Michael Benevento, Los Angeles.

The city has some notably huge local artists. It is strongly connected to Group Zero—a movement of capitalist realists of the late 1950s and early 1960s centered around Otto PieneGünther Uecker and Heinz Mack—as well as the Düsseldorf school of photography of 1980s prominence. The city’s Kunsthalle has exhibited locals like Hans-Peter Feldmann and professors from the renowned Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, including Tomma Abts and Tal R. Exhibitions like the current “Real Humans,” with young Americans Wu TsangIan Cheng, and Jordan Wolfson, highlight some of the art world’s most cutting-edge practices. “We try to be the most experimental exhibition space in the Rhineland,” Jansen ambitiously points out.

Museums are also strongly engaged with the contemporary in Germany. Dr. Brigitte Kölle has been director of the Gallery of Contemporary Art at the Hamburger Kunsthalle since 2012. The museum, which paradoxically diverges from the non-collecting model of the typical Kunsthalle, was founded in 1869 and holds a collection of artworks covering 700 years of history, including a notable conceptual and minimal art collection. “Our understanding isn’t really as a kind of regional museum, but to situate ourselves as an art institution in the overall international context,” she emphasizes.

James Benning, Decoding Fear, 2015. Installation view, Kunstverein in Hamburg. Photo: Fred Dott.

Even within each city there is a surprising breadth of art institutions. Kölle notes that in Hamburg alone there are numerous spaces, including Deichtorhallen Hamburg, the more experimental Kunstverein in Hamburg, and the Kunsthaus Hamburg, which focuses on local artists. What is so surprising is how, for Germany, contemporary art is rooted in regional identity. “If you look especially at Rhineland, I think it’s amazing how many art institutions you can find in about 200 kilometers—in Cologne, and Düsseldorf, and Bonn, and Leverkusen.” Kölle observes. “There are really hundreds of art institutions, and somehow they survive. They have been founded by the citizens of these small towns and cities, so it’s part also of the understanding of the city itself.”

Francesca Gavin
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019