Peter Friese is the director of Bremen’s Weserburg – Germany’s pioneering collectors’ museum. Three years ago he initiated an exhibition format displaying works from young private collections, which will be shown in a series online exhibitions on Independent Collectors for the first time.
Marking the start of this new series, Peter Friese talked to us about the need of a collectors’ museum for the German museum landscape and cultural politics.
Mr Friese, you are the director of the Weserburg – Bremen’s museum for private art collections. Please tell us about the work that you do there.PETER FRIESE
The major focus of the Weserburg is on the presentation of contemporary art from the 20th and 21st centuries in private ownership. It is and remains a museum where, in the sense of the ICOM statutes – collect, preserve, research, exhibit and mediate – scholarly work is conducted. What is special about our institution, however, is that what is exhibited is privately-owned art. In the collaboration with collectors, it is not that “private collections” are put on display; instead with selected works from these collections, we present a differentiated, overall view of our era. This means that together with the collectors, whom we consider to be our partners, we develop specific exhibition concepts which are derived from the collections themselves and make a statement about our “present” that cannot be found elsewhere. One could speak concretely about a juxtaposition and opposition of various collections with different emphases – of course individual works also engage in mutual dialogue – and about complementary or contrasting positions which stand for the simultaneity of varying, to some extent opposing ideas. Out of this substance, we repeatedly draw forth larger thematic exhibitions that have an impact far beyond Bremen. Here are a few examples: “Minimal Maximal,” an exhibition that could subsequently be seen in Spain, Japan and Korea. Or “Farbe im Fluss (Color in Flux), and last year the widely acclaimed exhibition “Land in Sicht” (Land in Sight).
The focus of the collections that have been there from the beginning is on works from Fluxus, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art and Arte Povera as well as on Color Field Painting (within the Gerstner and Lafrenz Collections that have been affiliated with us since 1991) as the foundation of our current concept of art. These foundations are repeatedly expanded through new, to some extent highly controversial young positions from other collections. In this way the museum is in fact capable of conveying a distinctive, even unique insight into the present through art and of repeatedly bringing it up to date. My concrete responsibility consists of conveying this intellectual context, i.e. bringing to light correspondences between the classical positions (e.g. Minimal Art, Conceptual Art) and much more recent positions that react to the aforementioned historical models with intelligence, with respect, but also in some cases with irony. And of course it is also important to present new, young collections that are excellent even if still unknown.
Twenty-five years ago, the Weserburg pioneered the concept of a collector’s museum in Europe. Today people are debating whether the Weserburg is still needed as a cultural venue. Why has this shift happened?PETER FRIESE
When the museum opened on 6 September 1991 and offered the public access to international contemporary art in four old warehouses in the middle of the Weser River, Bremen set an example for all of Europe with this new type of museum. The fact that it was a matter of privately owned art not only became a trademark and unique characteristic of this institution as the first recognized “collectors’ museum,” but also provided Bremen with a genuine opportunity during the 1990s, in an era where the scarcity of public funding was already making itself felt. Through the Weserburg, the Hanseatic City was able two-and-a-half decades ago to fill a gap in its cultural landscape and to establish a connection to the international artistic debates that have occurred since the 1960s. The basis for this endeavor consisted of collection presentations of longer duration as well as repeatedly occurring special exhibitions in which current works and artistic trends not seen theretofore in Bremen were finally displayed and discussed.
One could conceive of the entire matter as an historical impulse, because in the subsequent years the situation of museums throughout the Federal Republic changed. It became possible to establish new types of museums, such as the Neues Museum in Nuremberg, whose works are especially derived from private collections and foundations. Moreover, several collectors in succession opened their own, special private museums at various places in Germany. In parallel, however, it became clear that because of increasingly limited financial resources, even institutions of long standing such as the Kunsthalle Hamburg or the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich could no longer do without loans from private collections. In other words, privately owned art began to play an increasingly important role all over the country. Culture sections in newspapers even began to speak of the “power of the collector,” a formulation which almost anticipated the term “Siegerkunst” (victors’ art) that is being discussed today in Germany.
In short, it became increasingly clear that the highly innovative idea developed at the end of the 1980s by the founder of the Bremen collectors’ museum, Thomas Deecke – namely displaying quite contemporary art from private collections – could no longer be laid claim to exclusively by the Weserburg for itself alone in an artistic landscape that had changed in the meantime.
So the collectors’ museum, if it sought to successfully continue its work as heretofore, had to be reformatted; there was a need to define its responsibilities more precisely as well as to augment them with new and timely challenges in order to achieve legitimacy with regard to the present and to reacquire an unmistakable profile within the museum landscape of the Federal Republic.
A handful of major German collectors such as Ingvild Goetz, Harald Falckenberg, Julia Stoschek and Christian Boros have built their own museums to house their collections; the Weserburg, however, chooses to show a wide selection of collections. What do you think is the advantage of focusing on diversity rather than singularity when it comes to exhibiting art and the culture of collecting?PETER FRIESE
We of course are familiar with these collections and private museums and cooperate with some of them – for example, with Ingvild Goetz, Thomas Olbricht and Harald Falckenberg. In the meantime, those institutions have developed their own profiles and programs which they pursue in concentrated form. But in its central function, the Weserburg does something entirely different, as you have already implied in your question.
It would be a grievous mistake, however, to assume that the aforementioned private museums have rendered the Weserburg superfluous as a collectors’ museum. Such assumptions are already ill-considered because they assume that the newly founded institutions have taken over the Weserburg’s tasks 1 : 1. Persons who hold this opinion don’t know what we actually do here in Bremen, how we bring works of art into relation with each other and, above all, how for several years now we have been working quite successfully with the various collectors, including more and more young collectors. The specific opportunity that we actively take hold of consists of presenting works of contemporary art in a proportional mixture that can only be realized at the Weserburg, i.e. in an accentuation of artistic focuses, art-historical contexts and current themes that can come to unique expression here. Because the Weserburg takes this public mission quite seriously and consistently fulfills its overarching demands, it distinguishes itself clearly from most publicly displayed private collections which, as a rule, are concerned with presenting as comprehensively as possible a single collection and the concomitant profile of the collector.
In what way is the Weserburg unique in comparison to other exhibition venues?PETER FRIESE
This question touches not only on art, but especially on our concrete curatorial work and its methodology. If for more than three years now, the Weserburg has on the basis of private collections been including even more than before among its tasks the investigation, exhibition and elucidation of contemporary art, then this cannot occur on the basis of a linear concept of art history (for example, from Abstract Expressionism past Color Field Painting to Pop Art). This sort of orientation wouldn’t be applicable in our case already because it proceeds from a problematic developmental logic within art, whereas the unfolding of contemporary art is based on dialogues and encounters. Art history as a “model of progress” has been refuted by artists themselves and their constant cross-references, back-references and attacks on what has gone before. We consider it our responsibility to bring to light these reciprocal references and controversies in our exhibitions. The collectors as well take satisfaction in participating in this endeavor. As far as I know, no one else with the German museum landscape and possibly even further afield is involved in such an undertaking.
Because this sort of non-linear thinking also corresponds to a contemporary understanding of history, art history – when it is presented in such sharply outlined focuses and encounters – is able to become a living illustration of history as such. It is precisely this that the Weserburg seeks to make one of its outstanding signs of accomplishment in the future. The collections with which the Weserburg cooperates and will cooperate in the future doubtlessly have suitable material for this purpose.
Unfortunately, there continue to be a few intractable individuals who claim in public that the collectors’ museum is an obsolete model. Such assertions are utterly false, because exactly the opposite is the case. More and more collectors are showing interest in working with us and presenting parts of their collection in carefully curated exhibitions.
One example is the presently successful exhibition “Mir ist das Leben lieber” (I Prefer Life), 2016, with the truly distinctive collection of Reydan Weiss, born in Istanbul. On display here is an extremely personal yet finely differentiated view onto “world art.” We present art not only from Europe, but also from North and South America as well as from the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Oceania and Australia. This is in the truest sense of the words “world art,” in which it is above all a matter of the handling and enduring of cultural and individual differences, of “foreignness,” but also of existential questions such as life and death. In addition to well-known names such as Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and Gerhard Richter, the visitor to the exhibition also finds previously unseen but highly interesting works by artists whose names were previously unfamiliar.
The exhibition format “Junge Sammlungen” (Young Collections) that has been running for three years with great success also deserves mention in this context. It not only presents entirely new perspectives in the development of art but also, on the floor above, casts a new light upon the “classic” positions of Concept and Minimal Art as well as of Color Field Painting. In this sense, we successfully exhibited in 2014 the previously never before displayed collection of Dominic and Cordula Sohst-Brennenstuhl from Hamburg, and then continued similar exhibitions as a deliberate series. Ultimately, these young collections not only give rise to dialogues with the past but also open a view onto the future.
Unlike a museum, collectors are not restricted in deciding what to buy or not to buy; consequently, a collector may be quicker to display works by up-and-coming artists. Do you see this “freedom” as a key factor behind the ethos of cultural venues such as the Weserburg?PETER FRIESE
I do see an incredible chance for our institution to work with collectors who don’t make their selections in conformance with the mainstream, who don’t submit to the insinuations of art magazines or gallery owners but instead cultivate their own interests, preferences and freedoms. I can perhaps illustrate this with two examples.
In 2015 in our young series, we offered the first public presentation of the Frankfurt collection of Mario von Kelterborn. As a collector, he continues to be in search of art with a “political” message. This doesn’t assert a legible political program but instead raises insistent, irresolvable questions about a present era that seems to be becoming increasingly unhinged. So as a collector, he surrounds himself quite deliberately with international works which are related to society, ask profound philosophical questions but are also quite explosive in political terms. And he does this with conviction and passion. For him and us, it was a great challenge – and an equally deep satisfaction – to present in Bremen the recently-purchased 6-channel video installation “The Enclave” by the Irish artist Richard Mosse. With its images distorted by infrared film, this space-encompassing work showed disturbing images of the war zone in the eastern Congo and found an ideal site at the Weserburg in the context of a thematic presentation of Mario von Kelterborn’s collection.
The second example is the collection of Ivo Wessel, which we got to know in Berlin and are fortunate to present in Bremen this year. The software developer has assembled a pointedly expressive collection that combines Conceptual Art with pictorial narrative. The collection is marked by Ivo Wessel’s special talent for making discoveries, his passion for headstrong artists and his pronounced interest in literature and film. What is striking about his collector’s profile is a fascination for the unfathomably grotesque, but also for humorous and poetical works, something that is evident in his quite personal selection of videos, among other things. Especially rewarding for me were the correspondences that were established seemingly spontaneously by the works of Karin Sander or Mathieu Mercier, but also by the complex of works by Anton Stankowski, with other works from other collections in the Weserburg.
We believe that the stereotype of being a collector is changing, with a fresh young generation hitting the art market. In what ways does the Weserburg help to promote a new image of young collectors?PETER FRIESE
We indeed take care to work with the collectors to draw forth from their works something special, a theme that can be conveyed in the form of a statement. It is a matter of something which on the one side is individual, unique and distinctive and, on the other hand, has for both younger and older visitors a clear, challenging and generally understandable timeliness. The Weserburg has therefore deliberately initiated a new exhibition format, one which is highly esteemed not only by visitors, but especially by the collectors themselves. One to two times per year, works of art from a young private collection are displayed at the Weserburg. The catalogues created in the framework of these exhibitions constitute a series of publications by the Weserburg; they not only accompany the respective exhibition on site but also, after the end of the exhibition, have the goal of continuing, by means of their concept and contents, to shed light on the correspondences that arise among the works. Deliberately structured as an ongoing series and enriched by an interview with the collector, these little books bear witness in succession to the quality and diversity of private art collecting; to the passion, commitment and joy in discovery evinced by collectors; and last but not least, to the high quality of young art. And I am thankful that a part of this work, indeed in a literal senses even a complete visit to exhibitions that have already taken place, can now be experienced online on Independent Collectors.
You have worked with many collectors. Which collaborations numbered among your personal highlights at the Weserburg?PETER FRIESE
Five years ago, I had the opportunity to curate and realize the exhibition “Color in Flux.” Here it became evident that the many years of collaboration with “our” collectors and their works, along with the trust that is thereby engendered, can culminate in a quite critical investigation of high-quality painting. The exhibition did not concentrate on a single collection but arose through individual loans, most of which in fact came from private collections. In the end, I myself was astounded that this was possible. We were actually able to present the most important representatives of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting and not only to document the response of young artists to these historical models, but also to engage in controversial discussion regarding this encounter. Just imagine: An early picture by Jackson Pollock (1947) hanging alongside an Oscillation by Max Ernst (1943); immediately adjacent, an Oxydation Painting by Andy Warhol (1978). All these works actually hung together in the sense of mutual influence and cross-reference. And what is more, wonderful works by Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Sam Francis, Larry Poons, Lynda Benglis and Kazuo Shiraga. For their part, those works were countered by Bernard Frize, Ceal Floyer, Kitty Kraus, Rosemarie Trockel, Katharina Grosse, Karin Sander, Tony Tasset and other significantly younger artists. As said before, most of the loans for this exhibition in fact came from private ownership, from collections that I had already been working with for years. To express it in terms used by Gerhard Richter, who was represented through the collector Georg Böckmann with an important older work as well as with a further six new works from a private collection, and who supported me personally in this endeavor: This exhibition was more clever than I was! Because I could suddenly discover relationships (e.g. between Pollock and Shiraga, in other words between Abstract Expressionism, Gutaj and Zero) that I had previously never even suspected. I take pleasure in recalling something like that, especially because it demonstrates that the collectors’ museum is excellently equipped, even with limited financial means, to develop outstanding exhibitions that offer a host of revealing insights.
What do you enjoy most about displaying different collections?PETER FRIESE
What pleases me most is bringing the various collector profiles into meaningful relationship with each other. This means that the juxtaposition or confrontation of differing concepts and preferences always stimulates and effectuates more in the visitor than simply the sum of his or her visual impressions. In fact, a new aesthetic experience always arises, one which can also culminate in a realization that was not possible previously or elsewhere in such a form, as is shown by the aforementioned example of Pollock and Shiraga. And if our main concern lies in contrasting the approaches and profiles of various collections, then what arises is this juxtaposition and confrontation of several collectors’ positions, which is always surprising for me. All that is needed is to move once or twice to another floor in order to become aware not only of the diversity, but also of the numerous cross references and relationships. Of course I also enjoy conveying this unique characteristic of our institution to a broad and varied audience. I particularly value mental operations which go against the grain of the supposed linearity of art history, in which visitors realize that the experiences they have just made at an exhibition also have a transformational effect on them and convey new self-knowledge. And I know on the basis of my own experience that something like this can also exert a lively appeal to children and young persons and thereby reach wider circles of the general public.
What is the usual process when setting up an exhibition?PETER FRIESE
When it is a matter of works from a single private collection, a selection is made by me or by the curatorial team in consultation with the collector. In concrete terms, in the current presentation “Mir ist das Leben lieber,” we – with the consent of the collector – decided upon around 100 of more than 600 works. We were absolutely convinced by these pictures, sculptures, videos and photographs in particular. It was and is always a matter of making a deliberate statement rather than of presenting a heterogeneous array selected from the collections. And with regard to the thematic exhibitions which we ourselves create and curate from several collections (see “Farbe im Fluss”), it is necessary to convince loaners to part with their works for several months and to make a contribution to the theme, something that generally proves to be possible. I don’t have to state further here that there is a need to combine the works within a catalogue, to describe them in essays, to document and “explain” them in brief texts, and to make the entire enterprise widely known (unfortunately with a far too limited marketing budget). As already said, I have a great personal interest in conveying these contents to extensive segments of the population – an undertaking with which the collectors are in full agreement. The exhibitions themselves are thereby invigorated by visitors of many types, including lots of children and the younger generation.
What are your future plans (and wishes) for the Weserburg?PETER FRIESE
Oh, there is a multitude of concrete plans as well as of pressing wishes and projects. Through larger, internationally recognized exhibitions, I would like to help the Weserburg acquire further and fresh resonance beyond the borders of Bremen and Germany, to make it even more widely known as a collectors’ museum. Of course, I hope to continuously extend the series of “Junge Sammlungen” and to document it further in the written series that has now grown to Volume 3 – so that it will be possible in the coming years to demonstrate that the impulse to collect art is not solely a market phenomenon, but that it constitutes an active mental and aesthetic investigation of the current era. I would like to bring the old warehouses that house the Weserburg up to the newest technological and museum-supporting standards while making use of around 5000 m2 of exhibition space. With this successfully undertaken course, I would like to usher the institution into a secure position with regard to cultural policy, because the precarious finances of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen give rise to repeated discussions about downsizing the Weserburg for reasons of business management – something which, I must say candidly, would destroy the entire concept of this museum. My plan is to see to it that the institution is preserved as such and can continue to provide proof of the feasibility of its concept for the future. This includes the additional creation of two necessary positions, namely for art outreach and for curatorial assistance. The fact is that the Weserburg, together with the “Zentrum für Künstlerpublikationen” (Center for Artists’ Publications) integrated within it and the GAK (Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst) housed in the same building, provides Bremen with a unique and important center for contemporary art. And this should remain so. Last but not least, I have a burning desire to someday hand over the scepter for the Weserburg to a similarly motivated successor. So you see: There is still much to do in Bremen.