PRINT Summer 2010


Carte Blanche

AT FIRST GLANCE, it seems like selling out: the genie of capital being let out of the bottle once and for all. Carte Blanche, a unique project at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig, involves eleven private individuals and companies who were invited to pay approximately twenty thousand euros each (including the cost of heating, insurance, invigilation, and so on) for the privilege of curating exhibitions at GfZK, the first institution for contemporary art built in the former East Germany after the fall of the wall. The contributors included three collectors, two commercial galleries, one bank, and the Cultural Committee of German Business. The program ran from 2008 to 2010, and it obviously reflected the rapidly expanding influence of private interests over exhibition programming and acquisitions in public museums, anticipating heated discussions around such occasions as the presentation of the UBS collection at the Museum of Modern Art and of the Dakis Joannou collection at the New Museum, both in New York.

But upon closer inspection we learn that Carte Blanche is no blank check. It is, in fact, a complex, reflexive, and thought-provoking project that raises pressing questions about curating and the function of art institutions themselves: How can we produce enough maneuvering room for artistic and curatorial practices that go beyond the already confirmed models of operation? How can we negotiate the diverse and conflicting interests in which the world of contemporary art is enmeshed—a world that is, moreover, undergoing radical structural changes—without aiming at facile consensus?

More than cynical provocation, Carte Blanche seems a form of direct research into these very questions. All of the invited “curators” are actively involved with contemporary art, whether philanthropically or commercially, and they either have prior relationships with GfZK (as does, for example, the industrialist, collector, and cofounder of GfZK Arend Oetker) or are connected locally, like the Galerie Eigen+Art. A majority of the invitees chose to collaborate with the museum’s curators, taking advantage of GfZK’s professional know-how. They also agreed to discuss publicly their motivations for engaging a museum in this way, making arguments via panel discussions as part of the project’s accompanying CB Discursive program. Such efforts at transparency provided a striking counter- point to the blatant buyout of the program itself.

I appreciate the courage of GfZK. Even on the evidence of just two installments of Carte Blanche—Dogenhaus Galerie’s presentation of heavy-handed technological sculptures by Julius Popp, whom the gallery represents, and of Mark Lombardi’s intricate charts of networks of power; and the Circle of Friends of Hans Brosch’s retrospective of the sixty-seven-year-old painter’s work—it is clear that the museum’s director, Barbara Steiner, is ready to take risks. The series attempts to break out of the defensive position of most public institutions and instead be procreative, stimulating a debate the likes of which are rarely featured in the open. For instance, Carte Blanche has clearly brought in art that otherwise would not have appeared at GfZK, highlighting the importance of sometimes abandoning the affirmative paradigm of curating—of shifting one’s criteria for art from the “good” to the “interesting.” In other words, whereas the individual projects are based on earnest support of the work on view, the institution’s terms of engagement do not require the same sort of enthusiasm. Instead, Carte Blanche points to the variety of ambitions and agendas that lurk behind these private investments.

One of the risks involved is that of showcasing work that is not typically part of a museum’s program, certainly not this one’s. While Dogenhaus’s contribution highlighted systems—whether technological, as in the work of Popp, or economic and social, as in the work of Lombardi—and alluded to both the museum and the gallery’s own complicity in this very system, the Circle of Friends of Hans Brosch took a different approach. Advocates of the subdued Abstract Expressionist paintings of East German artist Hans Brosch, this group staged the first comprehensive presentation of his once influential body of work. Brosch had had difficulties showing his anti-official oeuvre in East Germany, and left for West Germany in 1979; after a brief moment in the limelight there, he fell into oblivion. While I don’t find Brosch’s paintings intriguing, I do think that the exhibition raised important issues concerning the way mainstream art history is written and how it can be challenged by a private society or “circle of friends.”

Carte Blanche also underscores the fact that private initiatives have been crucial to most public museums for as long as they have existed. In the US, of course, this is yesterday’s news, as museums typically still depend on private donors. In parts of Europe, however, the phenomenon of purely public art museums in the postwar period mounted an illusion of the transhistorical, pristine public institution. This turned out to be a short historical parenthesis. One of the effects of the end of this innocence is a kind of strategic separatism: a growing tendency toward self-organized (and often secluded) initiatives that avoid mainstream contemporary art institutions by setting up their own networks and structures. (Think of 16Beaver in New York and the Centro de Investigaciones Artísticas in Buenos Aires.) This practice can be understood as an escape route from capital in general—and from spectacle in particular—to allow for a measure of self-determination. Carte Blanche pulls this discussion into the realm of institutions, asking whether the problem is less one of private interests entering institutions than exiting them. With more and more private collectors starting their own muse- ums rather than engaging with existing ones, a parallel private system has developed, leaving Europe’s public museums with little money and shrinking prestige—and with an increasingly withered, instrumental relation to both the state and the public. The GfZK can’t stem the tide, but it can highlight and temporarily reverse the flow.

Although the Habermasian hope for harmonious rational deliberation has been abandoned in Carte Blanche, there is a lurking sense of longing for the good old days of classical bourgeois altruism. And yet, by unfolding in stages and over an uncharacteristically long period of time, Carte Blanche at once points out the diversity of private engagement and complicates the notion of patronage—whether private or public. By embracing transparency and open discourse, the program reveals its debt to modernist ideals of the public sphere. At the same time, it avoids one of the more mysterious weaknesses of the art system: the desire to find totalizing solutions in a single exhibition or conference. Nor does it posit its research model as relevant for everyone, although it did generate more visitors and media attention for GfZK than previous exhibitions there. Ironically, it also allowed the museum staff, freed of their usual routines, to spend valuable time lobbying local authorities, which has indeed led to increased public allowances for GfZK for 2010. Nevertheless, the genie is out of the bottle, and it shows no signs of returning. It is out and it is talking, ready for a hard, long-needed, public conversation on the circumstances for art production and institutional work.

Maria Lind is director of the graduate program at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.