In 2007 I co-edited the book Mögliche Museen with Charles Esche (Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven), which is devoted to the development of museums of modern and contemporary art. On the basis of 10 examples from the last 50 years and our own experience of working for and with museums, we and a number of other authors examined the public art museum in terms of its potential for renewal and education, as well as for the critical reflection of social change. Above all, we were interested in those moments in history when changes seemed possible that had previously been inconceivable. Our focus was on the ambivalence of museums between ideals and social reality, demands for change and extreme inertia, as well as on occasional utopian glimpses that make it possible to imagine alternatives to a status quo of one kind or another and to bring about change. These utopian elements continue to interest me: against the background of a highly complex network of interests and increasing economic constraints, where and in what form can they (still) make an appearance, and what conditions have to be created so that other ideas are not only permitted but actively encouraged?
These questions are the starting point for my work: I regard the context in which artistic and curatorial production take place as an integral component of my exhibition concepts and long-term projects. I think it is important not only to talk about varying interests and create space for opposing stances, but also to confront these in order to stimulate debate about similarities and differences. This applies to the development of an institution’s programming concept as well as to curatorial practice and exhibitions.
In this respect, my exhibitions and projects revolve around four main themes: the relationship between local and global agendas; interculturality; interdisciplinarity; and the relationship between art and economics. I feel that institutions on the whole are too defensive in their approach to the latter aspect, whereby recent changes in the financing and maintenance of public institutions have made it increasingly important to think about new partnerships and funding models for art institutions, and about the relationship between the public and the private sector. This issue has been a concern of mine for many years and informs my work at and for art institutions. One example is the project Carte Blanche, which I organized at the Museum of Contemporary Art (GfZK) in Leipzig in 2008 and 2009. Here, companies ranging from small start-up businesses to a globally operating concern, as well as a number of commercial galleries and private collectors, were invited to publicly display their commitment to art. This series of exhibitions, which was accompanied by a programme of discursive events, set out to present different approaches, address conflicting interests and discuss the implications of private engagement for public art museums. In short, its aim was to offer a proactive response to changes taking place in society and to create new perspectives for art and its institutions. (Barbara Steiner, The Captured Museum, Berlin: Jovis, 2011)
The project Friends and Accomplices, which was launched at the Vienna Künstlerhaus in 2014, can be regarded as a continuation of these debates. Here, too, it is not a matter of affirming commodification processes, but of challenging them and actively influencing such developments. Numbers are central to the first part of 600 M. – Friends and Accomplices: they depict monetary values related to the history of the artists’ association. As well as examining the 150-year history of the institution, the exhibition also looks to the future by repeatedly asking the question: What if? (www.k-haus.at/600Mio)
The four areas outlined above are united by the fact that they are prone to conflict, whether it is the relationship between art and economics or the tension between local and global agendas, different cultures or disciplines. The projects I have been involved with – from Europe (to the power of) n, Carte Blanche, Friends and Accomplices through to the interdisciplinary projects Shrinking Cities, Heimat Moderne or Cultural Territories – not only address conflicting interests but also strive to find a visual and spatial expression for them.
The extension building for the Museum of Contemporary Art (GfZK) in Leipzig, which was designed by as-if berlinwien and opened in 2004, plays a particularly significant role in this context. Performative principles were applied in the development of this award-winning building, which allows a variety of spatial configurations, connections and divisions to be created. With its flexible use of space and multiple lines of sight, the design of the architectural structure actively encourages negotiation about its artistic, curatorial and museum use. For this reason, the publication Negotiating Spaces (2010) featured – in addition to contributions by as-if berlinwien, various consultants, the site manager, the project manager and myself – statements by people who had made use of the building over the past five years. (Barbara Steiner/as-if berlin wien, Negotiating Spaces, Berlin: Jovis, 2010)
Barbara Steiner, 2014