Inside the German Art Factory

The kunstverein is a cornerstone of the sturdy German art system, believes Milan Ther, the new director at Kunstverein in Hamburg.

Milan Ther. Photo: Fabian Schwarze.

From Documenta in Kassel to the many private collections that join the Rhineland, legendary dealers, and the hordes of Berlin-based artists, the contemporary art scene in Germany has been running at fast pace since the Second World War. The reasons are both historical, political, and economic, but to a great extent it is also a matter of infrastructure: the country’s intricate network of institutions and the people who work there. After three years as director of the modest kunstverein in Nuremberg, Danish-born Milan Ther has moved to Hamburg to steer one of the country’s most renowned art spaces.

From 2015 to 2018, Ther served as curator at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover, where he helped create Made in Germany 3 in 2017, a large-scale exhibition across three institutions in the city that followed the five-year cycle of Documenta and aimed to highlight Germany’s role as one of the international art world’s strongest spheres of production. There, Ther helped point to some of the millennial generation’s foremost artists – including Max Pitegoff & Calla Henkel, Studio for Propositional Cinema, Amy Lien & Enzo Camacho, Raphaela Vogel, Lena Henke, and Juliette Blightman – as ultimately less a reflection of Germany than of Berlin as “the studio of the world,” or as it said in the catalogue, “the art world’s backyard.”

Ther, who studied art history at New York University and curatorial studies at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, grew up in Copenhagen, where he gained contact with the German language through his schooling at the St. Petri School in Copenhagen’s Latin Quarter. In this interview, he could not yet reveal much about the forthcoming programme in Hamburg, but shares his experiences in Nuremberg, Hanover, with the Éclair project space in Berlin, and the German art system more generally. 

What challenges does the director of a German kunstverein face today – and especially one of such prominence as that in Hamburg?

The art world is always changing in so many ways. And where museums have perhaps become younger in their programming, in part because they can’t afford to buy as many or as expensive works anymore, it has become important to understand what a kunstverein can do as an institution that doesn’t collect. We need to ask ourselves who is exhibiting and why, and what it means to create aesthetic and political diversity. How can an institution speak with many voices at once while also operating programmatically? At its best, contemporary art is an amorphous field full of contradictions and people who advocate different ways of thinking about themselves and about art.

At the Kunstverein in Hamburg, we have very large spaces, which are often difficult for younger artists to engage with. Can a 35-year-old fill these thousands of square metres? At the same time, a kunstverein like this one is more capable than other institutions of supporting the artists who most need help with production, which is often precisely the young ones. The museum is mostly in conversation with things that have already happened, and as such operates at the end of the chain of value production that the kunstverein is typically at the beginning of. Also, the kunstverein is relatively free from the commercial pressures that structure other parts of the art sector, which I think is also what makes it an important democratic structure, worthy of financial support. With this network of hundreds of kunstvereins, from very small to very large, which, driven by the visions of shifting directors, tend to change drastically every five to eight years, you really have a diverse institutional sphere with a lot of room for experimentation.

In Germany, I think it is really this sphere more than the commercial one that allows for art to circulate and achieve such a high degree of visibility. There are several generations of American artists who had their first exhibitions here, and then only later returned to the US as well-known positions. I still think Germany is unique in that sense, and that the kunstverein is the cornerstone of that system.

You’ve said before that the Kunstverein in Hamburg is one of the institutions in Germany you would most like to work at. Why?

It has a lot to do with the support that exists in Hamburg in terms of both interest and engagement. This particular Kunstverein has an exciting history and an active community of members that has had some lively discussions about what kind of place this should be. It’s no coincidence that a football club like St. Pauli is better known for its fan culture than its sporting achievements. There is something special about this city and the way people here support the local culture. At the same time, Hamburg is a big city with a history that reaches beyond Germany’s borders and where there is also a strong political culture. 

In 2018, you started your tenure in Nuremberg with the group exhibition Die Stelle des Schnitts [Interface], which included sound and video works by Renée Green, Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi, James Richards, and Cosey Fanni Tutti. You since presented W.A.G.E.-co-founder Lise Soskolne’s rarely seen paintings from the early 2000s and Lawrence Abu-Hamdan’s The Witness-Machine Complex, which engaged the history of the Nuremberg Trials and won the German AICA award for exhibition of the year in 2021. How would you describe the red thread that ran through that programme?

What interests me in art is the possibility of describing the moments that attach themselves to the changes that are happening in our time. This is not to say that art should be complex in a particular way, but that it should exist with a certain level of intensity in relation to the uncertainty, the cracks, that emerge around processes of change. The exhibitions you mention all contain assertions about what it means to live, in the case of Soskolne, during the early days of digital image culture in the 2000s, or in Abu-Hamdan’s work, in the 1940s; what it means as a human being to be a witness to the world.

From 2017 to 2019, together with Mathias Toubro and Sigurd Kjeldgaard, you ran a project space called Éclair in a dark old room with gold mosaics on the wall in the Berlin neighbourhood of Moabit. For me, that programme helped map a certain segment and generation of the art scene in Berlin. Some of the artists you showed were Luzie Meyer, Rosa Aiello, Veit Laurent Kurz, and Magnus Andersen. What do you think about working generationally?

Of course, you should always make an effort to understand yourself in the context that you’re in, but you should also be able to look beyond it. It is precisely the tension between local and international contexts that is so interesting. The art world in Europe has been very late to notice the things that are happening outside Europe and the United States. It is partly to do with the funds that are available, and I am definitely aiming at making a more diverse programme in Hamburg than it has been possible to in the places where I’ve worked before. It is enormously important to explore and be in dialogue with artists that operate with different definitions of art than the one we know, but who live in historical and cultural contexts that are actually deeply connected to places like Hamburg.

At Éclair you were mostly working with artists from your social circle and practices that caught your immediate interest. Which considerations determine the decision-making process at a kunstverein?

We are living in a post-pandemic time with a war in Europe and headlines declaring “The Nation Is Back” or “Globalisation Is Over.” But at the same time, is it difficult to imagine that the world should get smaller. It is a time where there are a lot of emotions that will not be simplified in one way or the other. So the question is how the institution can play a role in relation to the urban space, and to people in Hamburg, Germany, and Europe, at the same time as it also carries this responsibility for thinking outside those regions. And then there are the ecological considerations. We are working on developing residency programmes, which, for instance, would make it possible to produce works here in the institution instead of transporting them.

You studied art history at New York University and since did an MA in curatorial studies at the Städelschule in Frankfurt. Was it clear to you when you had graduated in New York that you wanted to go to Germany?

When you study art history as an academic field you are cut off from what is happening now. But it made me frustrated to be so far away from where the art is being produced, and that’s also why I am so happy I went to Germany. At Städelschule, you experience how art generates a community between the people who make it and learn how dialogue and discourse work in practice. Academia and production are both individually important, but in combination they are very, very valuable as a way to understand what institutional work also has to be able to contain – and do – for artists and for the public.

From 2015 to 2018, Milan Ther served as curator at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover, where he helped create Made in Germany 3. Installation view, Made in Germany 3, Kestner Gesellschaft, 2017. Værker af Thomas Ruff, Veit Laurent Kurz og Studio for propositional Cinema. Photo: Raimund Zakowski.