Arts Academy of Dusseldorf The Mark of Autonomy

Class McBride
Class McBride | Photo: © Moritz Krauth

The crowds of visitors flocking to the Annual “Tours” are almost as large as the throngs that line up at peak hours at the Louvre in Paris or at the MoMA in New York. Indeed, the Arts Academy of Dusseldorf is a magnet for artists and the general public.

The Arts Academy of Dusseldorf – who would not think of the legendary Fluxus performances and events of the early 60s or the furor over Joseph Beuys, who shook the institution to its core in the early 70s? And who would not immediately recall the academy’s pivotal role in establishing photography as an art form? Prestigious examples such as Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth all graduated from the class taught by Bernd and Hilla Becher, who held Germany’s first photography professorship.

A Counterweight to New York

All of these events built up the Arts Academy of Dusseldorf’s reputation. The fact that artists associated with the Academy were selected to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale international mega-exhibit more and more frequently also bears witness to the Academy’s outstanding position. “The most important generation of German artists worked in the Dusseldorf/Cologne area since 1960. Famous galleries from these cities operated worldwide; art fairs took place on a regular basis and many international artists were drawn to this place. Dusseldorf thus became the only counterweight to New York in terms of contemporary art,” Robert Fleck, Professor of Art and Public Space at the Academy, writes in “Die Geschichte der Kunstakademie Düsseldorf seit 1945” (History of the Dusseldorf Arts Academy since 1945). The magnificent volume gives an account of the cultural policy and cultural significance of this extraordinary institution. The list of professors and teaching staff alone reads like a who’s who of the key artists and personalities who influenced the evolution of Western art.

Yet the Academy also had its share of challenging times. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the vibrant art scene in Dusseldorf and Cologne came crashing down at the same time that Berlin’s magnetic pull started to grow. It was only after the upheavals of the early 90s that the creation of the exhibition infrastructure necessary for young art began – with places like the Kunsthalle, the museum kunstpalast, Kunstverein, K21 Ständehaus (Kunstsammlung NRW) and KIT (Kunst im Tunnel).

Against standardization

Amadeus Certa, class Anzinger Amadeus Certa, class Anzinger | © Photo: Moritz Krauth Since the 2000s, on the other hand, the Arts Academy and its graduates have had to face other challenges, such as reacting – both back then and now – to the developments brought about by the forces of globalization and digitalization. In addition, universities had to deal with the educational policy changes resulting from the Bologna reform and the conversion to the Bachelor/Master system introduced Europe-wide. Much credit is due to Markus Lüpertz, president of the Academy at the time, who managed to uphold the Academy’s autonomy against the trends seeking to standardize higher education and turn it into less independent, school-like instruction. “In so doing, he re-established the Academy for the new millennium, as it were,” Fleck points out in his book. Lüpertz, whose educational ideals stressed the importance of allowing artistic personalities to develop in complete freedom, headed the Academy during two decades until the British sculptor Anthony Bragg, took over in 2009. Four years later American-born Rita McBride was appointed president, in part also due to the fact that her long-standing tenure as Professor of Sculpture at the Academy had given her broad knowledge of the structures and inner workings. She is the second woman president of this 240-year-old institution founded in 1773 as the Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture of the Electorate of the Palatinate.

In pursuit of free art

It is difficult to predict whether the appointment of McBride will usher in sustainable change. One thing is certain, though: despite their different priorities and management styles that may stand at odds with each other, presidents of the Academy have all subscribed to the same philosophy: they have clung firm to the concept of autonomy. The official website says it loud and clear: “Artistic activity unfolds in the spirit of total freedom in art. In addition to applying to the fields of painting, sculpture and visual graphics, this tenet also holds true for architecture, stage design, photography, film and video. In this respect, the Art Academy is committed to the pursuit of artistic quality, diversity and an international reach. In an interview dating back to 2013, Markus Lüpertz expresses it in a somewhat more poetic way: “The noblest task consists in drawing students into an atmosphere of art and allowing them the possibility to breathe freely there.” Rita McBride would certainly agree.