The joy of running a museum

On 2 September 2009, her second day officially on the job, Marion Ackermann, the new director of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, the state’s art collections housed in Düsseldorf, Germany, introduced herself to the public. She treated the audience to a brief yet inspiring preview of the changes and activities she is planning for the years to come.

Ackermann promises indeed to set a very different tone in the renowned and well-provided museums. Her talk was perceptibly knowledgeable yet relaxed; she had good answers to all questions, and her personality seemed far from the arrogant elitism too many of her colleagues like to sport. Ackermann really projected the fun of managing a high-level and varied art collection like this and of accepting the challenges posed by the buildings it owns.

In fact, both main places of the Kunstsammlung have beautiful and spectacular architecture, yet are not necessarily the easiest places to display art. The K20 building, shaped like a concert grand piano and specifically built for the collection in 1986, has a strange configuration of many longish, extremely high-ceilinged rooms, some of which are just plain impossible for any kind of works smaller than your typical Richard Serra steel sculpture. It used to house exclusively the late-19th to mid-20th century art and hosted imposing exhibitions.

The other building, the historic Prussian Ständehaus from
1880, now called K21, was refurbished in 2002 to hold the late-20th and early-21st century collections. It has a spectacular atrium and glass roof, while many of the actual exhibition rooms tend to be relatively small and low. Also, they do not form an enfilade, but you have to leave through the same door you came in. Special exhibitions were mostly confined to the basement, because that provides the only space that can be re-configured easily to fit different display formats.

Ackermann announced that she will finally do away with this separation by art period. Irrespective of their time of creation, individual works will be displayed in the rooms best suited to them, since particularly the K20 building has very good spaces for contemporary art, while the classic K21 befits many of the smaller, more intimate older works.

But even more importantly, Ackermann has a view to introduce a more communicative presentation style to both houses, a bit similar to what Tate Modern and a few other museums have been practising for a while now. Why not put works from entirely different periods into one room, if they develop a specific tension together? The collection boasts masterpieces by, inter alia, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko on the one part, and by Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, Marcel Broodthaers, or Jannis Kounellis on the other. The idea of throwing them together is very exciting indeed.

And Ackermann wants to literally think outside the box and open up the Kunstsammlung to co-operations with the multiplicity of other art-related activities in Düsseldorf, such as the Düsseldorf Arts Academy, the Julia Stoschek Collection, private galleries, and other public museums. A starting point for this will be the preparation phase for a high-profile Joseph Beuys exhibition in the fall of 2010. The prep activities are supposed to have a partly-open workshop character with public events debating the question “How to exhibit Beuys?”, and will be located in an external location, the former Schmela Gallery house that is now under the auspices of the Kunstsammlung.

And finally,  the new director is thinking of setting up a permanent home for the museum’s video art collection, which has so far been only intermittently on display.