Can a New Gallery Initiative Rebrand Munich’s Art Scene?

The brainchild of a cohort of next-gen galleries, the Various Others initiative is an attempt to rejuvenate the city’s image

BY Kristian Vistrup Madsen in Opinion | 20 SEP 18

‘It’s always Berlin Berlin Berlin,’ a tall impressive woman gesticulates at a man with a paisley scarf, ‘but where’s the money?’ It’s the opening party of the new gallery initiative Various Others and we are in a gargoyled former bank-turned-vegan pop-up-hotel in the city centre. ‘Everyone’s been looking for the next big thing from Germany,’ a Chanel bag chicly rattles from the pit of her elbow as she opens her palm, ‘why shouldn’t it be Munich?’. 

The event was organized by a group of next-gen galleries who earlier this year founded the Verein zur Förderung der Aussenwahrnehmung Münchens als Kunststandort e.V. (Association for Furthering the Outside Perception of Munich as an Art Destination). In their welcome letter, Munich Tourism, with whom they’ve partnered, cites the legacy of the art-loving Wittelsbach kings, under whose reign the city became a veritable art capital in the 19th century, as one to fall back on. This does not exactly resonate with the funky typeface of Various Others, but is perhaps an accurate testament to the immensity of their ambition to drag Munich’s art market belatedly into the new millennium. 

Speaking at Friday night’s inaugural gathering, Jo van de Loo of the eponymous gallery cited the art scenes of Berlin-Basel-Vienna as vertices in a Bermuda Triangle between which Munich gets lost in the fog. To clear the air, for Various Others each participating gallery or institution will invite a guest from another city to augment their own programme, thereby bringing different players to the scene; first artists and dealers, but hopefully also audiences. I say ‘will’ because in this, the pilot year, there is still some confusion as to what exactly the relationship between guest and host should be. 

Jörg Immendorff, Wo stehst du mit deiner Kunst, Kollege?, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 1.3 x 2.1 m. Courtesy: Galerie Michael Werner Märkisch Wilmersdorf, Cologne & New York © Estate of Jörg Immendorff 

For one, the institutions have not had time to adapt their programmes to the September opening weekend, so the presence of Museum Brandhorst, the Lenbachhaus and Haus der Kunst on the bill amounts to little more than lip service in favour of the new initiative. Only the latter’s private view of its Jörg Immendorf mega-hang happened to coincide with Various Others’s opening weekend. Ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder was invited to open the exhibition on Thursday, and while something of a one-man institution himself, it can hardly be seen as a substantial endorsement of the concept. The same goes for the city’s blue-chip galleries: Christine Meyer shows Andy Hope 1930 ‘together’ with Hauser & Wirth, though she represents Hope in her own right, and would have mounted this display regardless (they are also presenting a one-off screening of Hope's 2017 film VERTICAL HORIZON at the Filmmuseum München on 4 October). At Rüdiger Schöttle one finds in effect two solo exhibitions by Jan Merta and Lorena Herrera Rashid, while a handful of Tal R sculptures, courtesy of Berlin’s CFA, appears impolitely sidelined on the rooftop terrace. 

As such it is clear where the force behind Various Others comes from: new arrivals keenly aware that the current scene rests on shoulders nearing the age of retirement. Another of its initiators Johannes Sperling opened his gallery in 2014. His ex-apothecary venue serves as one of the best examples of what Various Others might be, housing a tight group exhibition with Zuza Golinska from Piktogram, Warsaw, Spiros Hadjidjanos from Future Gallery, Berlin/Mexico City, and Anna Vogel from Sperling’s own roster.

‘Various Others, Deborah Schamoni hosting Project Native Informant’, installation view, Deborah Schamoni, Munich, 2018. Courtesy: Deborah Schamoni, Munich

Another gallery of the same generation, Deborah Schamoni, entertains London’s Project Native Informant in her stunning villa in Munich’s leafy suburbs. It’s quite mysterious out here, a local artist who I share a ride with says: large gloomy houses behind tall trees. Despite the Old Munich vibe of the neighbourhood, Schamoni is responsible for one of the city’s most progressive programmes, boasting Aileen Murphy, Judith Hopf and Amalia Ulman, among others. The current exhibition mixes her bright young things with those of the London address, including the DIS collective, Morag Keil and Hamishi Farah (of Arcadia Missa). But do two middling summer shows equal one adequate September one? Not really. The premise of the Various Others concept seems to be that the gallery (rather than a fair) context allows for strong, curated exhibitions. If Munich is to be an art destination in September, the incoming audience has to know that galleries are putting their best foot forward.

It should be noted that the best of Munich has historically been soundtracked by the creaking parquet floors of galleries such as Klüser rather than the lo-fi wash of post-internet videos, and to a certain extent this continues to be true. Klüser’s ‘Il Mondo Botanico’ combines its own holdings of the likes of Alex Katz, with graphic works from the private collection of the owner (Matisse, Cézanne, Giacometti) and rare photographs from the Berlin connoisseur Kicken. Each picture is completely arresting, and the experience one out of a Thomas Mann novel; an exquisite corpse of a century gone by. Munich Tourism’s evocation of Wittelsbach kings suddenly seems not so out of place.

‘Various Others: SPERLING hosts Future Gallery and piktogram’, 2018, installation view, SPERLING, Munich. Courtesy: SPERLING, Munich

At the Lenbachhaus, one of Munich’s major institutions, the elaborate ancient-looking rooms of its benefactor, the ‘Painter Prince’ of the late 1800s, Franz von Lenbach, are shrouded in dramatic semi-darkness, as the wall text explains: ‘to preserve an atmosphere of mystery.’ Behind the scenes, however, the Lenbachs’s was one of the most technologically modern homes in the city. And this conflicted relation to the contemporary continues to be emblematic of the Bavarian capital, with its urbanized Lederhosen-wearing forest people behind the wheel of the latest BMW.

But feather-topped hats and weird food alone do not constitute an artistic Bermuda Triangle (although the Wurst Salat is ambitious in the pursuit). That everywhere is somewhat under the weather – albeit different kinds of weather – is evidenced by visiting dealers’s astonishment that the majority of the footfall was made up of pristine-looking women armed with heavy wallets. Future Gallery, which has notably never participated in Berlin’s high-priced and clique-y Gallery Weekend, and Project Native Informant, based amidst the extortionate rents and disproportionate earnings of the British capital, for instance, both sold on Friday night, as did their hosts. At SPERLING, Anna Vogel’s close-up of the Rhine in moonlight was also sold: from Düsseldorf to Munich, people are actually buying. As a Berlin resident, I was shocked: where are all the art students hogging the free drinks?

Thinking back to the opening rooftop party, the city’s onion-domed spires bristling like trees in the distance, the ‘next big thing from Germany’ – or anywhere – is hopefully not another place to saturate and tank, but a more fundamental attempt to change to the structures underlying the art system itself. In the meantime, initiatives such as Various Others offer galleries a more cost-effective way of attracting patrons; of surviving, in this volatile climate.

Main image: Jörg Immendorff, Für alle Lieben in der Welt (detail), 1966, oil on canvas, 1.6 x 1.3 m, Städtische Galerie Karlsruhe Courtesy: Galerie Michael Werner Märkisch Wilmersdorf, Cologne & New York © Estate of Jörg Immendorff

Kristian Vistrup Madsen is an arts and culture writer based in Berlin, Germany.