What does it mean when you say kunsthalle? Interview with Anna Kodl

We asked Anna Kodl about Kunsthallen – what they are, where they came from, how they are changing over time, and what art they exhibit. At Kunsthalle Praha, she works as the assistant to the curator of the collection, while working on her PhD in art history at the University of Zaragoza. In her thesis, she focuses on the historical development and current issues of operating Kunsthalle institutions.

What kind of art institution is the Kunsthalle?

A Kunsthalle is a space where short-term exhibitions of contemporary art are held. However, as there are as many forms of Kunsthallen today as there are individual Kunsthallen, this may not always be the case. For example, the oldest Kunsthalle, the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, built in 1846, exhibits its art collection from the Middle Ages to the present, in parallel with temporary exhibitions.

The term itself is clearly of German origin. What was the impetus behind the first Kunsthallen in Germany?

Kunsthallen arose from the initiatives of art associations, so-called Kunstvereine, in the late 18th century, which wanted to promote local contemporary art. The members of these art associations were artists or art lovers, from the middle and upper classes burgeoning during the industrial revolution. Thanks to their collective and personal purchases, art collecting was no longer reserved for the aristocracy, the nobility and the Church. Art associations catalysed the art market and the appreciation of art across large swathes of society.

What was the membership structure?

Most of these art associations were registered as associations of public lotteries and were funded mostly through raffles. Each member bought shares, which formed the capital of the association. This capital was used to run the Kunsthalle and to buy artworks for the raffles. Artists had the opportunity to bring their works, which could be selected for the raffle and a public show. Kunsthallen were created for these exhibitions. The main motivation to become a member of the Kunstvereine was to win a work of art in a raffle!

What art did the first Kunsthalle exhibit?

The exhibitions mainly exhibited smaller-format images that were placed in the private living rooms. The selection of works was influenced by the prevailing taste of the bourgeoisie. Unlike art academies, where a conservative image of "ideal" art prevailed, members of the Kunstvereine preferred landscape paintings and still life.The selection of art for Kunsthalle exhibitions was often based on the affordability of artworks and therefore the program that the associations presented did not always have high artistic value.

How has the Kunsthalle art presentation changed over time?

The way of exhibiting in the Kunsthalle was inspired by the trade fairs of that time. They exhibited paintings of mostly smaller format for a shorter period and in a particular context or atmosphere that would encourage purchases. With the gradual enlargement of their buildings, their shows turned towards more “artistic” forms, until the exhibitions were professionally presented and scientifically processed. With the arrival of the first curatorial projects, the Kunsthalle model underwent overall transformation: the intention to exhibit art was parated from the intention to sell art, whereas the sale business has moved to commercial galleries. Today the Kunsthallen have a non-profit character.

How did the Kunsthalle become professional with the arrival of the curator?

The first major transformation was brought about by art historian Gustav Pauli (1866 – 1938). As director of Kunsthalle Bremen, he gradually began to engage in German modernism. He collected works by German and French impressionists. These still form the core of the Kunsthalle Bremen collection, but at the time they were provoking protests by the professional public. For example, the purchase of the now famous Poppy Field by Vincent van Gogh, bought by Pauli in 1911.

Following Pauli, the younger Alexander Dorner (1893–1957), then director of Landesmuseum in Hanover, explored the radical ideas of transforming the museum's static archive into a dynamic institution, where art blends with life. Furthermore, Harald Szeemann (1933–2005), today considered to be the most influential curator of the 20th century and founder of contemporary curatorship, radically dissolved the boundaries of conventional art. He created completely new visual worlds and spatial experiences. He was the first to open conceptual art, performance and exhibitions to a wide audience.

In the Czech environment, people have the idea that Kunsthallen do not have their own collections. Where did this it come from?

The idea that Kunsthallen do not have collections has been promoted in the US. Alfred Barr, the first director of the MoMA, knew that the way to success were temporary exhibitions, although he always saw the importance of having a permanent collection to be shown. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which was the Institute of Modern Art until 1948, gave up collecting in favour of becoming an exhibition platform for debate and temporary exhibitions. Later, it was the Alternative Space Movement in the 1960s which borrowed the Kunsthalle concept to show the current production of contemporary artists through short-term exhibitions. This concept was then transferred to Europe, where many new Kunsthallen without collections were created. Whether or not the Kunsthalle has its own collection, is not so important. More important is the relationship of short-term exhibitions to the long-term dramaturgy of the institution and if it is of a private or public nature.

Why is the existence of the Kunsthalle next to seemingly more traditional museums important?

Today, it is difficult to define clear boundaries, as many museums are functioning like Kunsthallen and vice versa. And within this vast spectrum there are several other types of institutions. In my opinion, however, the success of the Kunsthalle-concept and the reason why traditional museums are transforming today, is evolving with and adapting to the cultural industry. Practically, this means that institutions have incorporated elements from other areas of consumer culture into their activities, thus supporting and developing the emergence of the cultural industry. They have become a space for the development of critical thinking and open dialogue on current topics. Their primary goal is not to preserve art, but to present new perspectives and progressive tendencies in art.

Photo © Jan Rasch