Bettina Steinbrügge on Stepping Aside for the Younger Generation

Chloe Stead talks to the curator about her appointment as director of Mudam Luxembourg, after nearly a decade heading the Kunstverein in Hamburg

BY Bettina Steinbrügge AND Chloe Stead in Interviews | 23 MAR 22

Chloe Stead: You were the director of the Kunstverein in Hamburg for eight years. What are some exhibition highlights from your tenure?

Bettina Steinbrügge: There are so many. The first exhibition I did with Geoffrey Farmer [‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black’, 2014] was important for me as a way of showing what was possible in Hamburg. The artist created a six-hour sculptural performance with music about Frank Zappa, which was so engaging for audiences, but also proof that we could collaborate with other institutions to produce large-scale, museum-quality productions, despite not having much money at the time.

Bettina Steinbrügge. Courtesy and photograph: Susanne Dupont

An exhibition that was close to my heart was ‘Decoding Fear’ [2015] by the US American filmmaker James Benning, which was his first institutional show in Germany. The two main figures of this exhibition were Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. Both were refugees from civilization, both retreated into the loneliness of the American wilderness in order to lead an autonomous life. Thoreau was considered a prophet of civil disobedience, inspiring numerous American writers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mathematician Ted Kaczynski became known as the Unabomber in the 1990s after injuring and killing numerous people through letter-bomb attacks. He also lived in seclusion in a forest cabin as a survivalist and wrote a manifesto titled ‘Industrial Society and its Future’ in 1995 that is still read today. In the exhibition, Benning replicated the cabins that the two figures lived in as well as paintings from a number of ‘outsider artists’, such as Martín Ramírez and Black Hawk. It wasn’t an easy exhibition. It required a lot time to get around, but it’s a topic that still has a lot of relevance now.

James Benning, ‘Decoding Fear’, 2015, exhibition view, Kunstverein in Hamburg. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein in Hamburg

CS: Traditionally, Kunstvereins have a duty to support the local art scene, but many of the exhibitions you staged featured the work of international artists already quite well known in their respective countries. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

BS: Hamburg has a special position because the space, which is a former flower market, is so big. The upstairs gallery is 1,000 square metres – more like a Kunsthalle – and you have to have a certain oeuvre in order to really be able to do exhibitions there. It’s funny because when Nina Beier, who we showed in 2015, first put her sculptures in the space, she said they had never looked so small. She needn’t have worried though, the show, ‘Cash for Gold’ turned out great. It was a fascinating reflection on image-making and value production in society. You could say that we did the traditional Kunstverein-type programme on the smaller lower floor, where we did early institutional shows of artists such as Katja Novitskova, Prem Sahib and Hannah Perry. There are plenty of places for local artists to show in Hamburg, and I didn’t just want to repeat that; I wanted to bring something new to the city, which is also a way of giving back to the artistic community.

Kunstverein in Hamburg, exterior view

CS: One exception was the recent group show ‘Proof of Stake' [2021] about blockchain and other contemporary technologies, which was curated by the artist Simon Denny and featured some of his students from the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg.

BS: I always wanted to do a show on this topic, but I knew that I wouldn’t be a good curator for it because I just didn’t have the knowledge – although I was open to learning. Through the show, Simon opened my eyes to many great artists who studied in Hamburg, such as Paul Kolling and Prateek Vijan or others, like Sarah Friend, who in the past years became very important in the NFT discourse.

Prateek Vijan, ID Card, 2020, installation view from 'Proof of Stake', 2021, Kunstverein in Hamburg. Courtesy: the artist

CS: When you announced you were leaving the Kuntsverein to become the director of Mudam Luxembourg, you said you were leaving ‘a great job in a beautiful city’. What made you decide to move on?

BS: Before working in Hamburg, I was senior curator at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, and I always knew that I wanted to work with a collection again. I also felt that, after eight years, it was time for the Kunstverein to redefine itself with a younger director. With Milan Ther, the selection committee has found someone who is closely connected to a completely different generation of artists.

CS: Mudam houses the biggest collection of contemporary art in Luxembourg, which comprises over 700 art works, including fashion and design objects. How would you define the collection?

BS: In the last 15 years there have been three different directors who all had their own focus, so one of the challenges I’m facing is how to make the collection more cohesive. I believe that each museum should have a certain narrative and outlook that should also be part of the community around it. So what are the topics that are already being discussed in Luxembourg? I’m really interested in the fact that the Court of Justice of the European Union is located there, for example.

Mudam Luxembourg exterior view. Courtesy: © Rémi Villaggi

CS: What are for you the major differences between working in a Kunstverein and a museum?

BS: In a Kunstverein you can experiment a lot – you’re basically an activist! – but when it comes to questioning society, then I think people take museums more seriously. Mudam is a good place for us to define what the museum of the future could be because it’s only 15 years old. How should we address climate change? How can we change the structure of the museum to be more aware of what is going on in the outside world? How do we define different audiences and make it interesting for them? In both Hamburg and Luxembourg, a high percentage of people have a migrant background, but they are not represented in the city’s cultural institutions. So how can you change a museum in order to make space for these people? What do they need to want to come? A museum shouldn’t just be ‘educating’ people about art, but act as a platform where the local community can exchange ideas and learn from each other.

Main image: Geoffrey Farmer, 'Let’s Make the Water Turn Black’, 2014, exhibition view, Kunstverein in Hamburg. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein in Hamburg

Bettina Steinbrügge is director of Mudam Luxembourg.

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.