Market is something else
Gespräch mit Nicolaus Schafhausen
Nicolaus Schafhausen began his career as an artist and started curating at Galerie Lukas & Hoffmann, which he opened in the early 1990s in Berlin together with the artist Markus Schneider. He was the curator of the German Pavilion for the 52nd and the 53rd Venice Biennials. Melanchotopia is one of Schafhausen’s last exhibitions as the director of the Rotterdam’s Witte de With. I met him in a café in Berlin.
David Ulrichs /Near the end of your term at the Witte de With. You must be thinking of you future. You have held numerous positions in Germany, curated the German pavilion in Venice. What’s next? the U.S.?
Nicolaus Schafhausen / there are many challenges. But I have not made any decision yet. the world is much bigger than the U.S.
Ulrichs / You have collaborated with some private collections?
Schafhausen / Yes. For example, quite recently I reorganized Mark Vanmoerkerke’s collection in Oostende. But generally speaking I see my future in the public sphere. At the moment I am looking into the various types of museums that exist, so not only museums that show art. I feel there are other museums, like ethnological, historical or design museums that are doing often more interesting work than most of the art museums, but of course they are not so topical and timely. -ey seldom get media coverage to the same extent as an art museum and so are not popular.
Ulrichs / So your future is unclear? Do you still want to organize exhibitions and manage people?
Schafhausen / In a certain sense, the past explains the future. It’s precisely this past that I am thinking about at the moment. I managed about 20 people at Witte de With and was lucky that on my arrival I could compose my own team. I chose a very cosmopolitan and unique mix of people to work with me. I didn’t want introduce total top-down management, I wanted the others to participate, give their input and bring new ideas.
Ulrichs / Are you ever scared that one day you won’t have any new ideas?
Schafhausen / Good question. Curating is more about having a vision of how to make an idea work, than about always having new ideas. It’s just as important to be able to find the money, the support, sponsoring etc. I am not scared, but I expect my colleagues to come up with ideas too. I’m not new in the game and I have lots of practical and network knowledge. I am like my own archive! A 25-year-old curator with a different cultural background will have a different outlook on the art world.
Ulrichs / How did you start curating?
Schafhausen / I studied art history and originally wanted to become an artist. But then I started a small exhibition space in Berlin on a grant I received and I invited my friends to exhibit their work. Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Hoeller, Kai Althof all had their first exhibitions in my small space.
Ulrichs / In what way has the Berlin scene changed in the last years? Has it lost its edge or just grown up? Since recently you have a “pied-a-terre” here again. there must be something attracting you here.
Schafhausen / First of all, it is not relevant to separate the Berlin art scene with the rest of the world. Its development is symptomatic to the global art scene. Berlin – besides from Brussels where I also live – is the city where I have lived the most during the span of my career. I don’t have to live in the city where I work because the art scene is global and Berlin is an example of this. I would appreciate if Berliners would be less self-centered and think in a more international frame of mind. the emerging art scene is starting to think more in this perspective and so, in a way this is how the art scene in Berlin is changing.
Ulrichs / Berlin seems to be a testing ground for young curators, but very few curators from Berlin actually ‘make it’ on an international level. Have you made any discoveries recently? Any young innovative curators ‘based in Berlin’?
Schafhausen / this question is already assuming that curators based in Berlin are not part of the international art scene, which is not the case. I wouldn’t want to name drop because the scene is dynamic and constantly evolving outside of the institutional hemisphere, which might give the impression that they are not ‘making it’ on an international level. I could however say that institutions could aim for more diversity in their programming and given the responsible curators a face. -e problem is that international acclaim is apparent outside of Berlin and needs to be brought back to its roots. Curators are also represented by the artists they have worked with in a way, and so they gain international acclaim through the ‘success’ of these artists.
Ulrichs / You belong to a generation of type of curators that learned curating by mounting exhibitions, a kind of ‘curating by doing’ approach. You got to know the right people. Names such as Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Klaus Biesenach and Nicolas Bourriaud come to mind. But the next generation is well-trained and close on your heels. Nowadays, generally younger is often thought of as better. Do you fear they will replace you?
Schafhausen / No. I teach them. It’s true, they are welltrained. -ey study curatorial studies at de Appel in Amsterdam, at Goldsmith University in London or somewhere like that, but they learn our examples. One of the main differences between my generation and the upcoming one is that they start by evaluating everything. this method is quiet alien to me. You can’t learn curating, but maybe organizing.
Ulrichs / Surely Obrist makes one phone call and the exhibition is organized, but the younger generation is also very competent. Practical skills, such as sponsoring, budget planning, event management, marketing, statistical analysis etc. are all things that are being taught to the next generation. Scared?
Schafhausen / No. For me, curating has nothing to do with making phone calls.
Ulrichs / Do you have any idols?
Schafhausen / Sure! Artists like Isa Genzken, for example. Of course there are some curators that I respect more than others. I mean Harald Szeemann or Kasper Koenig and of course Catherine David have hugely shaped what it means to be a curator overall. Curating is a job in which it is impossible, unlike being an artist, to repeat yourself or repeat others.
Ulrichs / There is no ‘history of curating’ with different trends in which you might fit, like George Condo is still a Surrealist. But some free curators seem to have a bag of artists that they work with regularly in exhibitions.
Schafhausen / Well, at some stage these lists are exhausted and need to be changed, some artists are dropped others added…
Ulrichs / You have been at the Witte de With for six years. I think you mounted fifteen large-scale exhibitions. Sad to leave?
Schafhausen / I am happy to leave The Netherlands. I think it’s good to have a rotation in the direction of art institutions. Making space for perhaps younger curators. I am not really scared of the young upcoming curators because I find myself more often taking up a different role – a little bit like a mentor. Like here at Witte de With, I curate the team, the people, which I find this interesting. I think the ideas don’t get less, but the times and the surroundings call for something different every time. What interests me now is not the same as what interested me ten years ago.
Ulrichs / While you are very keen on making statements with your exhibitions, younger curators may choose to look at the financeability of an exhibition or the pragmatics of it before embarking on such a project.
Schafhausen / If I had always firstly thought about the financial aspect of an exhibition, I think I would have been jobless for most of my life! Concretely, “Melanchotopia” – the current exhibition at Witte de With in Rotterdam – is made up of some already made works combined with about 20 new commissions. Of course asking artists to make new works is very costly. Nevertheless, first I look at the concepts and then how I can get the funding for them. For me, it’s all about what can I get for what purpose under which conditions. It’s a whole lot easier for collecting institutions that have their own works, which they can let circulate and lend out or swap. If you are not directing such an institutions then it’s all about your contacts, your popularity, the trust you can build up, your own importance etc.
Ulrichs / What future do you see in biennials?
Schafhausen / Well, I think a lot of them will disappear. New formats will replace old ones.
Ulrichs / Apart from location what, if anything, do you think the Berlin Biennale has offered in its young history? Another artist is trying himself as curator like the recently retired Cattelan? Or do you think that Berlin Biennale jurymember Joanne Mytkowska just did some effective stringpulling like much of the Fundajcia Foksal crew?
Schafhausen / The symbolical appointment of an artist as curator is representative of the fact that discussions between curators and artists are not as segregated as they used to be. The importance lies in the discourses created and that is emerging from these new structures. It’s actually a natural process to see artists adopting the frameworks of curators in thinking about their own artistic practice, as they are not alienating themselves from a social context but think about their practice in terms of mediation and authority.
Ulrichs / So you don’t see yourself as another biennial-hopper- curator, who like some artists ‘hop’ from one artist-inresidence programme to the next?
Schafhausen / I have curated a few biennials myself and indeed there are some curators that hop from one biennial to the next, but I am not so convinced by this approach. Many of these curators just show a quite boring agglomeration of works, because there is no real curatorial concept. It’s so often I hear, “I didn’t really like the exhibition, but certain works, I liked.” I mean this you can say about every exhibition or biennial.
Ulrichs / That’s why you hear it so often!
Schafhausen / Well yes. But curating for me is about producing a surplus value. Something that is bigger than the sum of the works of art on display. I think the Lyon Biennial and also the Istanbul Biennial or Gwangju have a very high standard. I am not so sure about the Berlin Biennial. But I also saw some good alternative ones in Bucharest or in Dakar, which are great for what they aim at. I like to see when the authorship of the curator is strong, but I guess those are the kind exhibitions I like.
Ulrichs / In five years, where will you be?
Schafhausen / I simply don’t know. I know just about what I want for next year. I will read and write for the next year. Do some more sports, practice my French, teach a little bit and curate some smaller exhibitions.
Ulrichs / What will your topics of research be?
Schafhausen / Cultural politics. The individual as being responsible for his own cultural education; the privatization of concepts and ideas and ‘mediocrity.’ I hope to write a book about this. Propaganda, advertisement etc. is all about finding a middle way, of speaking and reaching out to a large audience. It’s always about the question: what is common sense? Trying to motivate the most possible people, to convince as many people. But this dowes not bring evolution into the cultural landscape. This is not innovative at all. Institutions that address a large public maybe are successful, but they are not the most interesting!
Ulrichs / Observing recent auction results at de Pury and Sotheby’s, it looks like the contemporary art market is recovering. Apart from the lavishness on parties at Art Basel Miami Beach this year, what effect do you think this will have on the art world, especially from a curatorial point of view?
Schafhausen / Recovering from what? Economic crisis are not to be related to art and culture which has no temporality. To make it very clear, market is something else. Leaving aside matters of ownership, you cannot put a price on art and culture as it is an integral part of our history, our society and our visions for the future. It’s probably important to understand that the market does not necessarily represent our contemporaneity and vice versa.
Porträt Nicolaus Schafhausen, 2011 (© Steffen Jagenburg)