Kunst-Werke in Berlin – which now returns to the terser acronym “KW” as its official name – is turning 25 this year. Armed with new management and new financial foundations, it now seeks to win back its position as one of the key exhibition venues in Europe. To this end the newly appointed director, Krist Gruijthuijsen, welcomed members of the press at an informal evening where the upcoming programme and profile was presented for the first time. In contrast to the often rather arid morning sessions usually associated with press conferences, this event was staged as an intimate, bordering on the seductive evening affair complete with bubbly and a lounge-like vibe at Café Bravo, Dan Graham’s courtyard pavilion.
And truth be told, aiming for a slightly sexier image is not unwarranted. The good intentions of encouraging more grassroots-oriented programming put forward by the most recent chief curator, Ellen Blumenstein (2013-16), soon became mired in an excess of parallel programmes. Despite some excellent exhibitions in between it all (most recently the feature of João Maria Gusmão & Pedro Paiva), these parallel events generated a general sense of confusion and impeded clear-cut programming. Following Susanne Pfeffer’s (2007–12) programme of relatively exclusive (solo) shows with an international outlook (featuring e.g. Sergej Jensen and Wael Shawky), Blumenstein’s all-embracing exhibition formats seemed like an obvious strategy, but the initiative suffered from crippling underfunding. Everyone was invited to join, but without any money to support the well-intentioned invitation, this soon became something of a millstone.
With extensive floor space in a key location in the city, KW should be a major active offering within the cultural metropolis that is Berlin – not just act as a seismograph. To this end, quite a lot has been going on behind the scenes to make this happen. While until recently the Berlin Biennial and KW have more or less constituted a single organization, they have now been formally divided into two. The position as (chief) curator of KW has thus also been upgraded to a directorship, and the new director has the backing of a new, strong board featuring heavyweights within the German cultural scene such as Olafur Eliasson and art collector Julia Stoschek – a board that has carried out extensive work to improve the financial situation of KW, for example by securing greatly needed funding from Berlin’s Senate Chancellery.
This means that Gruijthuijsen – a relatively young, ambitious Dutch curator with a strong network, arriving to KW from a position at Grazer Kunstverein – launches his tenure with a clean sweep and a strong new hand. And his programmatic initiatives are promising. First of all, he uses his position as director to distribute curatorial responsibilities at KW. Unlike the former chief curators at KW, Gruijthuijsen, acting as Director, is able to “set a team”. A newly established position as curator is filled by Anna Gritz, who has recently mainly worked in London with a brief detour to Berlin’s Schinkel Pavillon, while the team has been enriched by two equally interesting associate curators: Leawer-Yap and Tirdad Zolghadr.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, such curatorial distribution was not greatly in evidence at the press conference itself, where it remained difficult to know who is working with what parts of the programme, since Gruijthuijsen did all the talking. The programme also bears the clear imprint of his distinct curatorial profile. As an example, he will use the senior American artist Ian Wilson as a sounding board for his first year of programming, a decision that echoes with how Wilson – known for having radically rejected any kind of art object since 1968, instead staging conversations as his artistic work – was the overall “totem” of the four-year programme at Graz. Gruijthuijsen also recycles elements from Kunstverein in Amsterdam – a groundbreaking alternative exhibition format that he co-founded in 2009. As a parallel to Kunstverein’s bar, “Bob’s Your Uncle”, KW will have a Thursday night bar called “Bob’s Poco Bar”. Both are created in collaboration with seventy-year-old US artist Robert Whilhite (whose credits include set designs for several plays by Guy de Cointet).
The new activities also reflect and build on KW’s history. Gruijthuijsen describes the programme as “artist-centred”, referring to KW’s historic core position as an artists’ production site and institution. In this regard, Gruijthuijsen will revive and continue a series of permanent, commissioned artistic interventions in the buildings; older interventions that Blumenstein dug out behind various walls and layers of plaster. Staying with the “artist-centred” approach, much attention is focused on conceptual practices in the form of “artists’ artists”. In addition to employing Wilson’s practice to set the tonality of the exhibition programme, the programme includes a group exhibition co-curated with US-artist Jason Dodge (also a previous collaborator from Graz). Alongside Dutch artist Willem de Rooij, Dodge is one of the international names from the local Berlin art scene to have been invited to contribute to the first year of programming.
Emphasis is also placed on graphic design. Gruijthuijsen mentions in passing that this focus echoes the high levels of activity within this vocation in Berlin. For example, the venue presents the rich and varied realm of typographical objects collected by artist-cum-graphic designer Paul Elliman in the spring, and the new director will seek to set up a bookshop (following in the wake of several failed attempts) with particular emphasis on its own publications. The latter is a welcome initiative from KW, which has published very little in recent years. For example, key figure and polyglot Will Holder (artist, vocalist, graphic designer) has been invited to create a publication project that combines work “on the page” and “on site” throughout 2017.
One of the questions that remains is how – or indeed whether – the mostly male, “white” programme (mainly featuring artists who are nominally from US/UK/AU/DE/NL) reflects locally pressing and international contemporary political issues? At the press soirée Gruijthuijsen mentioned intentions to establish a “relationship to the other” with “notions of cultural adaption” as focus areas. The young Afro-American artist Adam Pendleton and Iraqi artist Hiwa K (now a household name, featured at Documenta 14) are exceptions in this regard, but as far as I can see only three out of the eighteen artists are female (Andrea Büttner, Hanne Lippard and Lucy Skaer).
Another question is how the many different parts of the programme will play out. The approximately three parallel exhibitions staged at KW in spring, summer and autumn/winter are scheduled to open successively, and the plethora of temporalities is accentuated by brief caesurae between the seasons where a performative event will mark and celebrate the “pause”. The high activity level is bolstered by weekly events under the common heading The Weekends, the aforementioned Thursday bar, and intentions to reach out into the city with a discursive programme.
Hugely energetic and ambitious, but perhaps also at times diffuse – as was touched upon in the above, one of the issues in the past was a too-eclectic diversity. But surely this will resolve itself. As a journalist from a Berlin newspaper muttered when we met in the autumnal drizzle of Auguststraße, these are after all still “free” intentions. And there is ample reason to be enthusiastic, even though the anniversary celebrations have been temporary postponed, buying extra time for preparations such as renovation work and establishing a new entrance. So as of January 2017 we can look forward to a new KW – fuelled by new funding, more exhibition staff and a tighter focus – presenting a strategic, effervescent programme of well-established, core artists that hopefully will help re-bolster KW’s international position on a par with ICA in London or Artists Space in New York.