Maurin Dietrich on Complicating the Bicentennial

The Kunstverein München director discusses the past and the future of one of Germany’s oldest art associations

BY Maurin Dietrich AND Angel Lambo in Interviews | 31 JUL 23

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Kunstverein München, one of the oldest art associations in Germany. Its year-long programme, ‘The Archive As…’ (2023), marks this milestone by presenting a selection of exhibitions, participatory talks and community activations that question the role of the institution throughout history, and the artists and members who shaped its present. By bringing together, for the first time, all archive material related to the institution’s past, director Maurin Dietrich and her curatorial team endeavour to fill in gaps in knowledge and challenge the idea that historical documents are exemplars of immutable fact.

Angel Lambo What other modes of chronicling did your team employ to present a fuller view of history?

Maurin Dietrich Instead of glorifying the idea of a 200-year history this year, in 2019 we decided to distribute the budget, attention and care over three years. This way into the subject allowed for conversations that were much more in depth. We wanted to do the historical work and we wanted to do the digitalization process to make everything accessible while being in conversation with the public about it in formats such as the summer school, where for the last two years more than 50 artists, thinkers and theorists came together at Kunstverein for a week to question the archive and the absences within it.

street party, Kunstverein Muenchen, 2023
Anniversary summer festival. Courtesy: Kunstverein München

These anniversaries really confront you with the illusion that work is done alone, because in these moments often one person is glorified for doing everything. Who gets to tell that story? Who gets to speak through an institution? We are not a museum so we don’t have something that you would typically describe as a collection, but we do have over 65 metres of archival material and most importantly we have an immense archive of oral stories that evolve around the institution. History is what hurts and these wounds – these gaps – made us take the time to look more carefully at [everything that should have been recorded in the past but wasn’t].

AL Did any particular characters from history emerge from these ‘wounds’?

MD I think there are a few biographies that really stand out. The first woman ever caught smoking on camera was Lola Montez, a dancer. She was well-travelled and became the mistress to King Ludwig I of Bavaria. In 1846, she tried becoming a member of Kunstverein München and was declined three times. She’s one of these figures that make you think what the place could have been like if voices like hers were allowed entrance.

Maurin Dietrich. Photo: Manuel Nieberle
Maurin Dietrich. Photo: Manuel Nieberle

Following that point, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction [1986] makes you acutely aware of how good men are – or historically have been – at telling the ‘killer story’ and at archiving themselves. It’s sort of suffocating. Being aware of inserting oneself into the physical body of the archive while moving through the present and glorifying one’s own existence is really helpful decades later! But it creates this massive windshield for everyone else who did the work alongside them.    

Mid-sized institutions without collections are often situated in the now – in the present – and that comes with freedom, but also the burden of something that I refer to as ‘institutional amnesia’, which means that there’s a massive amount of oral knowledge that exists in the periphery. Some people have been members of Kunstverein München for 30 or 40 years and, alongside the artists, they write an informal chronology of the place.

The Archive As...
‘The Archive As...’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Kunstverein München.  

AL Have findings from the archive led to any structural changes to the institution?

MD  When we arrived at the place and started working with the archive we implemented some structural changes, such as hiring a full-time archivist. This meant looking beyond the pressure of everything that we are doing to become immediately public.

Also, both myself, curator Gloria Hasnay, and assistant curator Gina Merz, have been thinking about a text by the brilliant feminist thinker Jo Freeman called the Tyranny of Structurelessness [1972]. The main takeaway for me is that power or authority is not inherently good or bad, but the way it’s been embodied and executed has often been historically violent.

We also had moments during lockdown when we turned inwards to question the structural apparatus that guides how we work. In our case we questioned why our 2000 members, about half of whom are artists, are not represented as part of the board. We recently suggested that an artist join the board to change how this part of the kunstverein is not only talking about artists but with artists concerning what an institution in the 21st century is or could become.

Archive space. Courtesy: Kunstverein München
Archive space. Courtesy: Kunstverein München. 

AL Speaking of the COVID-19 lockdown, how has Kunstverein München reassessed its purpose and programming in the aftermath?

MD Given the German institutional context, we are massively privileged in being able to access and being supported by public funding. I think post-pandemic times will show how resilient these institutions actually are in the face of political pressure and funding cuts.  

For exhibitions, Kunstverein München was the institution that often presented the first European solo exhibitions by international artists such as Adrian Piper, Andrea Fraser, Rita McBride, Lutz Bacher and Wolfgang Tillmans, just to name a few, and in the last four years, we produced exhibitions with artists such as Diamond Stingy, Pati Hill, Pippa Garner and Tony Cokes.

Diamond Stingily Kunstverein München
Diamond Stingily, ‘Wall Sits’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Kunstverein München

However, when we started working in the Munich context it was central to think beyond the exhibition making and extend our programming to – just one example- setting up a writers residency to institutionalize structures of hosting and allowing people to spend time in the city. Also, one of the main concerns that came up all the time in conversations with artists was the need for spaces and places for communal production. That is why we set up a two-year residency programme with the title ‘Peripheral Alliances’ on a farm a little outside Munich where more than 40 artists worked together.

AL What are your plans for 2024?

MD It’s about finding a modus operandi that exists beyond the idea of the ausnahmezustand [state of exception] and bringing attention to our new ‘now’. I think it’s more interesting to look at places, artistic practices, or curatorial trajectories if they’ve been embedded in a local context for a while. So we’re taking the time to work on longer research projects with international and local emerging artists.

Maurin Dietrich, Gina Merz, Gloria Hasnay
Maurin Dietrich, Gina Merz and Gloria Hasnay. Courtesy: Kunstverein München

As a mid-sized institution, we can be in conversation with current artistic, social and political developments and translate that in a very flexible, non-bureaucratic way into the Kunstverein. One other project I am really excited about is research and conversations that the curator Gloria Hasnay and me are spending time with right now, looking at the entangled histories of of weaving and coding. Computer technology in the 20th and 21st centuries is often glorified as a male-dominated field, so someone who’s been on our mind is Ada Lovelace and artists like Pati Hill, who worked against the idea of a binary code with xerox technology. There are also many more thinkers and artists we’d like to explore.

Main image: Anniversary street festival. Courtesy: Kunstverein München

Maurin Dietrich is director of Kunstverein München

Angel Lambo is associate editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin.