KW Institute for Contemporary Art “Creating Spaces for Thought”

Ellen Blumenstein
Ellen Blumenstein | Photo (detail): © Edisonga

The “KW Institute for Contemporary Art“ (Kunst-Werke) in Berlin occupies a special position on the German art scene - it is not a museum, it is not an art gallery and not a classic art association. Under the management of its new chief curator, Ellen Blumenstein, it has been restructured. In this interview, conducted by, she explains why.

Frau Blumenstein, you took up this post at the beginning of 2013. Your program for the first half of the year, entitled “Relaunch”, called not only the role of the KW Institute into question, but also your own role as chief curator. Have you gained any new insights yet?

First of all there has been a really positive echo. We have been told by visitors that the idea of making parallel use of the building on different levels works really well. We always use the basement, the “basis”, for showing a large exhibition, like Kader Attia: Reparatur, 5 Akte along with experimental, small formats on the first and second floors.

Some really nice dynamics develop from these different events that are all going on at the same time, everything interlocks and comes alive. One thing however has become quite clear - it almost verges on a Herculean task when you try to change the spatial features of a building. In the long term we are trying to attract different types of audience into the building.

In more concrete terms, how do you intend to attract these new types of audience?

I think that if we deal with subjects that are not only of specific interest to insiders on the art scene, but are more open and accessible, we will attract new and different kinds of art lovers. A good example of this was the series of exhibitions called One on One that was realised by my predecessor, Susanne Pfeffer. These exhibitions exerted a great power of seduction.

My aim is to get audiences to enthuse, even when we are dealing with political issues. As the KW Institute does not actually have its own advertising budget, I have to rely on word-of-mouth recommendation. When people are moved by an exhibition, they talk about it and the news is spread.
Kader Attia, Reparatur, 5 Akte/ Repair 5 acts, installation view; © Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Nagel Draxler, Galleria Continua, Galerie Krinzinger. Kader Attia, Reparatur, 5 Akte/ Repair 5 acts, installation view; © Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Nagel Draxler, Galleria Continua, Galerie Krinzinger. How do you see the role of the KW Institute in the social context of the moment?

In my opinion, due to the financial crisis, the West at the moment is having to face up to some drastic changes. Our self-image is crumbling and, along with it, the implicitness of the inherent roles. Institutions, and in this case above all the idea of an art museum, are strongly rooted in this self-perception. These changes in the institutions of art are to be seen most clearly in such tendencies as exhibitions taking more the form of events, the debate on whether something is art or not art or appealing exclusively to a professional art audience.

For me and the KW Institute the question of how we can make a place of art interesting in times like these is important, not only for the producers of art and culture, but also for a wider audience. The challenge therefore is to develop a program along the lines of “popular, yet not populist”.

How would you describe your role as chief curator in this situation?

One of the themes at the last Club Transmediale Festival - the Festival for Adventurous Music and Art - in Berlin was “Torwächter” (Gatekeeper), which I found very nice and thought it described my role really quite well. It is the gatekeeper who opens the gate, those inside are protected and those outside are let in.

I always go public when the issue is demarcation. At the same time on the inside I open up spaces of opportunity for the artists, for example. The important thing here is to set a basic prevailing mood that then imbues the process with a certain tone. In the end I am the one who is personally responsible for what comes about here.

The idea of “space” is important for your program. Why?

For me exhibitions have always been very special places. The way exhibitions work is different to what goes on in a public or domestic space. At an exhibition you can contemplate things and ideas in a different way.

As far as I see it, the potential for exhibitions becoming spaces for thought is still very much far from being exhausted.

What further cooperations and ideas are in the pipeline?

I am very much interested in cooperating with Arsenal - the institute for film and video art. In future we want to get together and investigate the interface between art and film and then develop some joint projects. At the same time as the Berlinale, at the beginning of 2014 we are planning our own piece on this subject that will show the direction we should be moving in - an exhibition focusing on the possibilities in film for thinking.

At first glance, one might not think it is a socio-political subject, but nevertheless I do think it political as it is a case of showing how the medium of film has changed our powers of perception. After all art activates new ways of seeing things and encourages us to think about what we have seen.

KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; | © Uwe Walter, 2010 The KW Institute for Contemporary Art is a place for the production and presentation of contemporary art, where the pressing questions of the day can be openly formulated and discussed. It is a centre for the presentation of recent developments in national and international contemporary culture, and for further development, working together with artists and institutions, and commissioning new work.

As an institution for contemporary art without a collection of its own, but also without the specific mandate of a member-based art association, the KW has a high degree of flexibility in creating its programs and addressing its audience. It is a resource both for the people who make active use of it, and for those who participate in it as visitors.