“Of course I get recognition – is that a bad thing?”
Gesine Borcherdt in conversation with Bettina Böhm, director of Outset Germany
Photo: Christian Hasselbusch
Bettina Böhm is a patron, manager, and art historian – and the new director of Outset Germany. Her role: getting people on board who support museums in buying art. In this interview, she explains why she’s chosen not to be compensated for her work, how she wants to change the charity mindset in Germany, and what sets Outset apart from other museum societies.
Gesine Borcherdt: You’ve only been doing this job since the summer and already you’re one of the most popular people in the German art industry. That must feel good!
Bettina Böhm: (laughs) Yeah, but in the first place I’m a door to door salesman. I go looking for donors to support Outset in making the purchase of contemporary art possible for museums. Only once I’m as successful as Outset’s founder in England will I be able to pat myself on the back. But that’s still a long way off. Germany’s mindset towards charity still needs some love.
What is Outset exactly?
We see ourselves as a bridge between private patrons and public institutions. Our goal is to make contemporary art possible through private and corporate sponsorship – to support its production and purchase by museums. What is important here is that it’s about public institutions that can’t resell the art.
So how does a sponsorship procedure like that work?
We’re actively asked by museums if we can assist in the purchase of a work that they would like to have for their collections, but that they can’t afford to buy themselves. Recently, a highly internationally regarded museum came to us: it wanted to buy a complex installation by Mika Rottenberg which the artist was producing at the time and was going to be shown first at Skulptur Projekte in Münster. In order to make that possible, the Outset locations – we call them “chapters” – in England, India, Israel, the Netherlands, and Germany are working together. For these kind of purposes, we have access to the IPF, the International Production Fund. We have a shared interest that an installation by this great artist goes to good hands.
You took over the position as the director of Outset Germany this year – but internationally, the institution already has a longer history.
Candida Gertler and Yana Peel had the idea – they founded Outset in London in 2003. Both of them wanted to be philanthropically engaged. The initial idea was to make an acquisition budget available for the Frieze Art Fair that the Tate Modern and Tate Britain would benefit from. In 2015, the Tate purchased its one-hundredth artwork from Frieze through Outset. And with that, the project was completed. But already from the start, a lot of other purchases and productions were being supported by the London chapter, and of course that’s continuing. In the meantime, there are now eight chapters worldwide. Sometimes we work together, often in collaboration with other institutions and foundations. We have offices in England, Scotland, Estonia, Greece, Israel, Germany, and the Netherlands. I’m also planning to set up a chapter in Switzerland and to lead that one together with the one in Germany.
Yes, and of course you ask yourself why there still isn’t an Outset chapter in other large countries like France or Italy. But it’s not so easy to find someone to devote their cumulative labor to this cause, and uncompensated. Myself, I’m always asked why I’ve devoted myself to this unpaid. First of all, it’s simply a pleasure to put good ideas into action that benefit the public. And of course I get my own personal benefit from it, and that doesn’t have to be monetary. Yes, and of course you get recognition – but is that a bad thing?
Up until now, no one’s heard that much about Outset Germany. That should be changing now under your leadership.
Outset Germany has been around since 2008 and, at first, was run out of Munich as an association that was strongly focused on Bavaria and supported a lot of projects for the Pinakothek der Moderne and the Haus der Kunst. Now we’ve moved to Berlin and I’ve taken over the leadership. I work full-time and can move around all of Germany and Switzerland. My goal is to give Outset a much broader footing in this area. In England, there are already 500 patrons. At the moment we have 23 here in Germany, but I’ve only been active in my search for new additions since October. My first step was to change the association into a non-profit society – you can operate more flexibly that way, and don’t need to hold general meetings. But of course I have to make sure that the donations are completely tax-deductible. That’s a prerequisite for that kind of financial commitment.
What amounts do your patrons need to contribute?
There are two categories: The normal patrons pay € 3,000 a year. If you want to be more strongly engaged – and then also develop the projects together with me – then you’ll pay at least € 8,000. Up until this point I’ve had one patron from Munich who is so strongly engaged that he takes over whole projects. Last year that was one project – and one that will take place annually from now on – that he financed with € 30,000: the purchases at abc, Art Berlin Contemporary. Luckily, he wants to continue this commitment for 2017 and possibly even increase it.
What amount of funds have you had to work with so far?
Since 2003, we’ve generated a total of € 8,5 million. Unfortunately, that’s not as much money as you think. This is the issue I want to focus on now. I want to influence the charity mindset in Germany by trying to convince people of its necessity. I think it’s clear to everyone that museums have too little money for acquisitions. But up until now, no one has really been thinking about how to tackle that.
Besides, every museum has its circle of friends that also finances new purchases. Do you encounter conflicts when you meet potential art patrons?
That is an important question. When I talk to people from those circles of friends, I’ve already heard the answer: “Actually, you guys are competition.” But that’s not true. We provide support independent of institutions. The circles of friends need money for their own institutions. And they often don’t hear precisely what’s being done with it. Acquisitions are mostly funded “with the help” of the friends of the museum – how high the contribution is, exactly, remains unclear. But that’s not meant to be critical. We cannot replace the circles of friends, nor do we want to. They are essential for every museum. But we want to help bring more new, current art to museums and see ourselves as a supplement. The Outset patrons take pleasure from knowing exactly what they are contributing to and also following the process, but most of all from not just supporting one institution, but every conceivable one.
Why is it actually only about acquisitions? You could also finance a new volunteer with the money. And incidentally relieve the state…
Correct. I experienced that myself at Museum Folkwang in Essen. My ex-husband and I were engaged in the fundraising for the museum. Then the new Chipperfield building went up and the structure expanded. The museum belongs half to the city and half to the museum association, which was founded in 1921. The director at the time, Hartwig Fischer, needed more staff, but the city didn’t want to give him the money for it. So we decided to fund a position at the museum through fundraising. That went well for two years – until the city of Essen decided to let another person go because there was a private donor who had paid for a position there! Of course we then gave up our position there. It’s exactly for these reasons that there’s reluctance to fund such posts privately: the city can simply withdraw from its responsibility. In this case, it was especially shortsighted as this associate was responsible for fundraising.
Public art sponsorship is on a continual decline, and that could also be down to the horrendous prices on the art market. What purchasing budget can handle them?
Art doesn’t always have to be expensive. We just assisted Kunsthalle Hamburg in purchasing a video work by Annika Kahrs, “Strings”: thematically, it’s about “failing better” – four string instrumentalists play different instruments and change them among themselves. The piece they play keeps getting worse until everyone goes back to grab their own instrument. For years, Kunsthalle Hamburg had reserved the piece in the gallery, but it simply lacked the money. When I took over Outset in January, the curator called me – a private collector was going to buy the piece if they didn’t finally get the money together now. I thought: Oh god, it must be expensive. I had already spent a lot on other projects and was afraid that there wasn’t enough left. But then came the surprise: The price was only € 10,000 – I could hardly believe it. I made an ad hoc pledge because I knew I would somehow get this amount together. There you can see: It’s not always about really big contributions. Kunsthalle Hamburg is now one step further ahead with this purchase.
What project is coming up next?
We have a lot planned – 2017 is a year full of major exhibitions! For Museum Ludwig in Cologne, for example, we’ll be buying a new work by the New York painter Avery Singer, who is now showing at Vienna Secession and will be at Kölnischer Kunstverein during Art Cologne next year. Her work has become rather pricey. But we got a very good discount on a piece from her new series that was even a little more than the usual museum discount.
Maybe some gallerists aren’t so happy about these special discounts and would rather sell to a private collector instead?
Gallerists know to value Outset. Essentially, we’re doing their work, getting artists into museums. And there, good discounts are completely normal – you have to think in the long-term. At the same time, we’re also sponsoring the catalogs for both exhibitions at Vienna Secession and Kölnischer Kunstverein.
So, who makes the decision about your funding projects – and especially if the artist hasn’t secured a historical position or isn’t already established high up in the market?
I decide what we sponsor, together with our patrons. In January 2017, we will hold our first “Annual General Meeting” where we’ll present the projects of participating curators and artists to our patrons. There we’ll decide what projects will be supported, and to what extent. We have to be really convinced of something. With Avery Singer, that was already the case since her exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. I have an insane amount of respect for her work. This young woman has re-invented painting again! She is constantly on the search for new paths of expression and new techniques. I consider her an outstanding artist that is absolutely worthy of support. Her age is of no relevance to me. And if her market value is already gaining, then it’s good for the museum that we’re buying now – before it’s too late.
Translation: Melissa Frost