Anniversaries of institutions can be dull, self-congratulatory affairs. But instead of concentrating on past glories for its bicentennial, the Munich Kunstverein is shining a critical, unsparing light on its chequered history by opening archives that were untouched for decades.
It would be easy to focus on the successes of the association, which was founded by three artists on 26 November 1823, as a platform for contemporary art. The list of artists who have exhibited there over the decades is an extraordinary Who’s Who: those whose last names begin with the letter B, for instance, include Georg Baselitz, Jean Michel Basquiat, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joseph Beuys, Arnold Böcklin, Pierre Bonnard and Louise Bourgeois.
But that would mean skating over some dark chapters—particularly the years before, during and after Adolf Hitler’s rule. By 1936, the Munich Kunstverein had excluded “non-Aryan” artists from its membership, says Maurin Dietrich, the Kunstverein’s director since 2019. “We are still looking for a list of the Jewish members—we know there were hundreds,” she says. Troublingly, that list is missing from the Kunstverein’s own records, “so we are cross-checking with other archives,” she says.
The institutions will soon exhibit its archive in a constantly rotating show called The Archive As… (27 May-27 August). Artists, theorists, art historians and former team members will devote themselves to different aspects of the material, depending on their own spheres of research. The aim, according to the Kunstverein, is to “negotiate with and in public the question of how histories are constituted.” A window of the Kunstverein displays a changing selection of the documents—a work conceived by the artist Julian Göthe.
While most German museums have at least begun to investigate their pasts, few of Germany’s 300 Kunstvereine, or art associations, have taken this step. Dietrich says that is partly because Kunstvereine are “defined by the idea of the new, contemporary, and cutting edge.” They do not have their own collections and are therefore not exposed to the pressure on museums to conduct provenance research.
The Munich Kunstverein began investigating its past over three years ago, opening boxes of documents that had lain undisturbed for decades in the attic and cellar. A further 62 metres of archival material was stored at the Munich city archive. The artist Bea Schlingelhoff confronted the Kunstverein with its history in a 2021 exhibition called No River to Cross. She formulated a text for the Kunstverein’s statutes, in which it “asks for forgiveness for its collaboration with the Nazi regime and the Reich Chamber of Culture”.
The Kunstverein has now secured funding for a permanent archivist position, Dietrich says. “A lot of work has been done, but in a way we are just getting started,” she says. “There is so much to be done.”
At the time of the Kunstverein’s founding, there was no marketplace or exhibition space for contemporary art in Munich—the only museum was what is today the Alte Pinakothek. The new art club became so successful that Crown Prince Ludwig became its chief patron in 1825. It counted more than 6,000 members at the peak (compared with 1,900 today). Women were permitted to join from 1829—they were not, however, allowed to take part in membership votes until 1902. It was the only institution selling art in the city until the late 19th century, when commercial galleries began to spring up.
But during the years of the Weimar Republic, a time when arts and culture flourished in Germany, the Munich Kunstverein and its elderly leaders became more reactionary in its outlook. After Adolf Hitler seized power, the association adopted Nazi policies.
“The fact that the association has steered free of all that which is rightly called ‘degenerate’ art is reason for justified pride,” reads a 1936 Kunstverein report. “We have no difficulty in joyfully pledging allegiance to the principles established by the Third Reich for the cultivation of German art.”
The Kunstverein’s building was destroyed during the war. It moved to the site where it remains to this day, the Hofgarten arcades, in three of the seven galleries where the infamous “Degenerate Art”-shaming exhibition commissioned by Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels took place in 1937.
By the 1970s, the Kunstverein was once again at the cutting edge of contemporary art, showing establishment-critical, political exhibitions. In one show, students at the Munich Academy of Art examined the case of Hermann Kaspar, an artist who carried out commissions for the Nazis but remained a professor at the academy until the 1970s. Their aim was to criticise institutional failure to break with the Nazi past. The Bavarian culture ministry threatened to cut the Kunstverein’s funding and the show closed prematurely.
The jubilee celebrations will also comprise more conventional festivities: on the weekend of 30 June, there is a public party and a dinner for patrons and artists in the Hofgarten arcades. Shade Théret, Magdalena Mitterhofer, Luisa Fernanda Alfonso and Jan Kunkel will give a series of performances. The first publication dedicated to the institution and its history will also be published in June, 200 years of Kunstverein München.
More information can be found here.