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"It’s not about showing a program that
people like."

An Interview with Svenja Gräfin von Reichenbach

Since it was founded, the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin has been under the direction of the gallery manager Svenja Gräfin von Reichenbach. For the current edition of, she talks about her job’s challenges and recalls some of the exhibition highlights of 2002.

Sara Bernshausen (left) with Svenja Gräfin von Reichenbach
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

Question: What does it actually mean to work as a "gallery manager" for the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin?

Svenja Gräfin von Reichenbach: As the gallery manager, I’m responsible for everything from the organization of exhibitions to the security alarm – and so it’s about all that goes on here at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin. This is particularly the case when it comes to the everyday running of things: the program accompanying the exhibition and the organization of the exhibitions that are shown here.

Q.: And so you’re the link, as it were, between the Deutsche Bank and the Guggenheim Foundation?

G.R.: Exactly. You could say that the joint venture comes together here in Berlin.

Q.: Does that mean that you coordinate things for both sides, both for the Deutsche Bank and the Guggenheim Foundation?

G.R.: Yes, my colleague Sara Bernshausen and I work together with our partners in Frankfurt and New York on a daily basis with the goal of presenting four exhibitions each year in the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin. In addition to international exhibitions and works commissioned to artists, one exhibition per year is dedicated to the artist of the Deutsche Bank’s fiscal year. The choice of this artist is determined by the Deutsche Bank. The remaining exhibition program, however, is worked out by both partners together. The reason why the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin functions so well as a joint venture is that the Deutsche Bank is not only a bank; because of its collection, it’s a real partner in the area of art, as well. Especially in that the collection’s main focus is on contemporary art. And so we regularly meet with the curators of the Deutsche Bank and the curators of the Guggenheim Foundation to work out the program, and suggestions are made from all sides. We always try to tailor the program to Berlin. And so it’s not a matter of what was just shown in New York, or whether we can show that here in Berlin, too, but rather of really putting together an exhibition program that’s interesting for Berlin. In addition to this, we want to channel people’s attention to Berlin, channel the attention from New York to Berlin, from Frankfurt to Berlin, but also direct Berlin’s attention to itself.

Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

Q.: What makes Berlin so special as a location?

G.R.: Finding the gap in the Berlin art scene that the Deutsche Guggenheim can fill. We’ve developed a program that approaches Berlin in a variety of ways. I think that can be seen from the exhibitions of the past several years. With Hiroshi Sugimoto, for instance, we introduced an artist who, although he was already known in Europe among private collectors, had nearly no public forum. For a large number of visitors, Sugimoto was a real discovery. On the other hand, we’ve also put up exhibitions with a direct reference to Berlin as a geographical location, such as our first exhibition of Robert Delaunay. Here, we even showed a painting that once hung in Herwart Walden’s Sturm Gallery, in an exhibition that was important to Delaunay because it led to his breakthrough in Germany. That was right around the corner from here, on Friedrichstrasse. Previously to the show at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Delaunay’s paintings hadn’t been seen in a solo exhibition for a long time. When the Hamburger Kunsthalle put on their large Delaunay exhibition two or three years ago, the press wrote that now that we’d already shown Delaunay’s work, more of his paintings were on view in Germany.

Rachel Whiteread: Untitled (Apartment), 2001
mixed media
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

Q.: So that means that the exhibitions either carry site-specific references or else offer an opportunity for discovery and rediscovery in the capital city?

G.R.: These are two important aspects, but of course there are other cases, as well. An artist like Bill Viola doesn’t need to be introduced. In the case of this particular commissioned piece, however, we considered that we were working with an artist who had arrived at a stage in his development in which a commission could provide him with the means for taking a further step in his art. We’re not a gallery, and that means that we don’t seek out unknown talent. The work we show already exists on a museum level. The artists that can be seen here have already come very far. Rachel Whiteread was also an artist who had previously achieved quite a lot, yet who saw a particular challenge in addressing the exhibition space at Unter den Linden. And so, in the Deutsche Guggenheim, she presented one of her sculptures "tilted" for the first time, instead of standing up, as she’d normally done before. And so perhaps the commission led her to begin "playing" with her sculptures.

Q.: This year’s exhibition of Kara Walker’s works was very controversial. How was it received that an institution such as the Deutsche Bank was presenting an artist who openly and "impudently" addresses racist and sexist themes and has no compunctions in dealing with her own erotic fantasies?

G.R.: I think that the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin has acquired a reputation in this city for showing modern and contemporary art; it’s not about showing a program that people like. The public is quite aware that this is a joint venture between the Deutsche Bank and the Guggenheim Foundation. In the final analysis, we’re standing in a building belonging to the Deutsche Bank. We’ve emancipated ourselves, however, to the point that nobody says, "there’s an exhibition hanging in the lobby of the Deutsche Bank." For this reason, no discussions take place, as far as we know, that question whether this or that art should or may be exhibited in the bank. Here, an interest in art is what clearly occupies the center stage. But back to Kara Walker. Many visitors were really enthusiastic, because what they were seeing here was something entirely new to them. I was spoken to by visitors in the exhibition hall who were so inspired by the work that they wanted to talk to me about it. The simple fact is that Kara Walker is a very important contemporary artist; she touches upon themes that are highly interesting in a number of ways. In the meantime, the public also knows that they’re not always going to see Classic Modernism here. Our program repeatedly presents positions that are difficult, too, that shake us up, art works that aren’t immediately accessible.

That’s why people like us and think highly of us. I can’t recall having heard any horrified reactions to Kara Walker’s exhibition. In the end, racism and sexism are very relevant themes that touch a great number of people’s lives.

Kara Walker, Cleanser, 2001
© Brent Sikkema

Q.: One of the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin’s great successes consists in the fact that it conveys to the public the level of Deutsche Bank’s commitment in the area of art. How would you evaluate the role of this joint venture in regards to the other artistic activities of the Deutsche Bank?

G.R.: Travelling exhibitions of works from the bank’s collection have always taken place. In addition, the bank showed the works of each respective "Artist of the Fiscal Year" in various locations over the course of the year. This had been the case since the collection of the Deutsche Bank first came into being, not only on a national level, but internationally, as well. For this reason, the Deutsche Bank has built up an entire network of relationships to a variety of museums – not only in the European art metropolises, but also in countries such as South Africa or Russia. In any case, the exhibitions of works from the collection will be taking on a greater significance in the future: shown in various places and with varying points of focus. The collection has grown enormously over the past twenty years. The sheer amount of works allows us to work with them in a very different way than with a collection still in the process of being built up. One can now pursue the same tasks as a museum – in other words, research. It’s possible to examine the works of art in new contexts again and again. In this sense, the exhibition program will certainly take on an increased significance.

The bank explicitly sought an encounter with the public in this particular location. One has to regard the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin in the context of the location and of the Deutsche Bank building itself, which was bought back at the beginning of the nineties when the area here, around Gendarmenmarkt, looked very different. It was a concern of the Deutsche Bank not to buy a finished office building, but rather to create a place in which an exchange could take place. The idea was also to play a part in infusing this area with life again. Certainly, the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin also represents something like an interface between the collection and the public, particularly in that the "Artist of the Fiscal Year" is shown here once each year in an exhibition. The Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, situated as it is in the Deutsche Bank building here in the center of Berlin, has attained an exceptional position in the art scene of the country’s capital; this fact also offers the collection, whose presentation had previously taken place in semi-public space, a possibility to encounter the public.


Bill Viola: Going Forth By Day, Installationsansichten 2002
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

Q.: When you think back over the past year, what exhibitions at the Deutsche Guggenheim did you like the best?

G.R.: That’s not an easy question. Every exhibition we showed was in one way or another very exciting for me personally. Bill Viola’s "Going Forth by Day" was a magnificent exhibition that appealed to all the senses; you could really immerse yourself in it. You entered the exhibition space and for the duration of at least one whole cycle, you gave yourself over to another world. I had a strong personal connection to this exhibition, because I’ve thought incredibly highly of Bill Viola for many years. The work he made for us grew over a number of years, of course, and so there’s a long connection here, too. And the Giotto Chapel in Padua that inspired Bill Viola in his project is also for me one of the greatest works from the beginning of modern history. Kara Walker’s exhibition was an enriching personal experience, because we were showing something here that doesn’t usually come across quite so clearly in the other exhibitions she does. With her drawings, Walker offered an insight into her working process. Her cutouts are, of course, very powerful and expressive. The stark contrast between black and white prevents, however, a peek "behind the scenes," while the drawn gesture reveals something about its development. For this reason, it was an interesting exhibition experience, even for those already familiar with Kara Walker’s art. Richter’s "Acht Grau" (Eight Grey) is an enormously powerful work, as well. It’s fantastic to show a new site-specific work here that is at once so visionary and so radical. I really couldn’t say what was my favorite exhibition.

Q.: Which of this year’s exhibitions presented you with the greatest logistic challenge? Both projects, Bill Viola’s "Going Forth By Day" and Gerhard Richter’s "Acht Grau" were very complicated. Was there ever a point when you thought, "This isn’t going to work"?

G.R.: Over time, happily, a basic feeling sets in: "Everything will turn out in the end." Despite this, during both exhibitions, this one critical point occurred. With Bill Viola, it was of course a tremendous challenge to coordinate the entire computer technology such that the installation actually worked in the end. And because the technology – high definition video – was not only cutting edge, but practically still being researched, it was particularly difficult. There was this one moment that I’ll probably never forget: one evening, when we were finally standing there in the exhibition space and all the images were running simultaneously for the first time, although the sound was still off – that was really, really wonderful. It was a truly overwhelming experience for everyone involved. Also for the artist himself, because with the commissioned works, it’s almost always the case that all of the work’s components are brought together for the first time here in Berlin. Bill Viola’s work had never been shown anywhere else before. We knew every video, but then there was this one moment in which the cycle ran simultaneously and at full size for the first time. The sense of relief was amazing, and we knew we were on the right path.

With Richter, the tension was of an entirely different nature. It was an incredible logistic effort to transport these huge sheets of glass to Berlin and to install them here in the museum. On the morning the crane unloaded the panes of glass and these huge crates were standing in the street with their fragile contents – that’s when I thought, "OK, that’s the first step, but…!" And then, while the first pane was being unpacked in the exhibition space, you could have heard a pin drop. It was unbelievably exciting to watch the glass panels being unpacked and moving freely through the room on suction cups, and then, to watch them being mounted on the wall. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the works were finally installed.

Gerhard Richter: ACHT GRAU, Austellungsansicht, 2002
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

Q.: One last question. Apart from Malevich and Artschwager, what other exhibitions are on the program for the coming year?

G.R.: Among other things, we’re going to be showing works by Tom Sachs, a young American artist who makes room-specific installations. We’ll be showing his installation "Nutsy’s," which is presently on show in the Bohen Foundation in New York, but it will certainly be presented here in a different manner. Tom Sachs will be addressing this room specifically. His works are comprised of many small pieces which are made by hand and then assembled together – many small works that together form their own worlds. Tom Sachs isn’t very well known in Europe yet. We’re very much looking forward to this fresh, new exhibition, which will be on view this coming summer.

Translation: Andrea Scrima