Gesine Borcherdt talks to Moritz Wesseler, director of the Kölnischer Kunstverein
Photo: Till Eitel
Moritz Wesseler took over the leadership of the Kölnischer Kunstverein, one of the most important institutions in the German artistic landscape, three years ago. It has attracted more members than ever before since—and it’s not all down to exciting exhibitions. In this interview, Wesseler explains what he’s doing differently to get people inspired about art.
Gesine Borcherdt: Mr. Wesseler, how many members did the Kölnischer Kunstverein have when you came on board as director, and how many does it have now?
Moritz Wesseler: To answer your question, I have to start with a general comment. Our institution is among the oldest and largest Kunstvereins in the German-speaking world. Pioneering exhibitions here were regularly geared towards contemporary art. When I started in Cologne, I encountered two problems: like many other Kunstvereins in Germany, ours had experienced a sharp decline in membership since 2000. Additionally, it was being discussed if other parties should move in to our building. With this background, it was necessary to take a new path. Alongside designing my exhibition program, I developed new communication methods that, if nothing else, took younger generations into consideration. In this way, our membership rose from 1400 to nearly 2200.
Among other things, the member’s gift has been successful; every member receives an artwork once a year, an edition that an artist has created especially for the association. So far that has included Lawrence Weiner, Rosemarie Trockel, and Kai Althoff. All big names…
The member’s gift has certainly become an important vehicle for us. We didn’t reinvent the wheel, though. “Member’s gifts” already existed in the 19th Century as so-called “Nietenblätter” (“rivet sheets”), which were unsigned art prints that you received if you left an Kunstverein auction empty-handed. We picked up this idea and adapted it for ourselves. The artists are enthusiastic about the project and the democratic principle behind it and therefore sometimes create pretty ambitious works for it. For example, Kai Althoff’s work for us. He produced a vinyl record alongside a graphic with a stamp and hand drawing that he provided. That was very elaborate and clearly expresses how high our ambitions are for the quality of the editions, even though we don’t sell them and rather give them away. It’s really nice when members of the Kölnischer Kunstverein send in photos that show how the works are presented in their own homes. Many members aren’t actually collectors, but are simply enthusiastic about art.
Your visitor traffic has also increased. How did that come about?
We’re achieving that increase through more events. There are regular lectures, concerts, films, or readings by contemporary artists. We’ve just had the Rheinland premiere of the film “Single” by artists Alex Wissel and Jan Bonny—featuring Lars Eidinger, Peter Doig, Rita McBride, and Sibyl Kekilli. At that event, we had more guests than seats. We organize these kind of events parallel to the exhibitions so that they’re not just drawing the public for the opening, but remain attractive throughout the duration of the show. My role model here is Daniel Birnbaum, who during my studies in the Rhein-Main region got two guests in the Frankfurter Städelschule almost weekly. Then virtually every week there were personalities like Neo Rauch or Lucy McKenzie on the podium. These kind of events are simply part of it if you want to put art across as something living and breathing.
How do you reflect this approach in your exhibitions?
The exhibitions that I have conceptualized for the institution move between Kunstverein and Kunsthalle programs. They venture to be a balancing act between unknown and established positions. The majority of artists that I show with us are being shown for the first time in Germany within an institutional solo exhibition. The first was Pietro Roccasalva, who had practically never been seen here before. Then the duo Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg followed, who are already very renowned internationally. So it went alternating between unknown and known names: Andra Ursuta, Claus Richter, Annette Kelm, Darren Bader, Ryan McLaughlin, Petrit Halilaj, Joao Gusmao & Pedro Paiva, Stephen G. Rhodes, Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili and Uri Aran... Many of my exhibitions were decidedly elaborate. Fortunately, we could always depend on the support of our partners and patrons. Some of them don’t ever want to be listed by name—they simply appreciate what we’re doing and want to be part of it.
Are you planning something special for the Art Cologne fair week?
Of course! On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Art Cologne, we’re organizing a specifically selected solo show by the internationally celebrated artist Andro Wekua. It’s his first larger exhibition in Germany in more than five years. We’re celebrating the opening on Thursday with a big BBQ, and then we’re presenting a concert on Saturday by Cannibal, artists Cameron Jamie, Cary Loren und Dennis Tyfuss’ band. These evenings will certainly be highlights of the fair week.
Translation: Melissa Frost