Stephanie Rosenthal was born in Munich, studied Art History and worked in various galleries before spending ten years at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Most recently she was Chief Curator at the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre.
Stephanie Rosenthal © Christoph Neumann / Berliner Festspiele

Thomas Oberender: Ms Rosenthal, if you hadn’t studied Art History, what would you have done? Was there ever a Plan B?

Stephanie Rosenthal: I never seriously considered any alternative. My parents assumed that everyone in the family would study Medicine but it was always clear to me that there was no way I was going to be a medic. I am convinced that art encourages critical thinking and that was a key factor in my choice of profession. Of course when you grow up in a medical family you are told that it is essential to make some contribution to the advancement of society.

And has this expectation been fulfilled?

I would say that we are in the middle of a crisis in the visual arts and I’ve also had to ask myself: What are we actually achieving now? In the last 15 years, the visual arts and contemporary art in particular have changed to such an extreme extent that many people are sceptical whether it is simply an entertainment culture and whether it makes any critical contribution to social change. And I’ve had to assess my own role: what am I actually doing and why?

What enabled you to find your way out of this crisis?

For me it was the Biennale of Sydney that I curated in 2016. Because I saw that this biennale is very close to the public – one that comes from all over the world and does not have to pay any entry fee. I felt that I was able to guide a broader public towards what I felt was important. My motivation is the idealistic yet firm conviction that the visual arts contribute to changing our thinking: generating new thinking about how we engage with the world and what our place in it is.

Why do you connect that with an exhibition house such as ours?

The Gropius Bau is the ideal place for my aim and my way of working. A building whose chequered history makes it an interesting “partner” for artists and exhibition makers, a building whose aesthetic is unique in Berlin and whose configuration of spaces and central interior courtyard, the Lichthof, allows experimentation with a range of exhibition formats. After interacting with the fascist architecture of the Haus der Kunst in Munich and the brutalism of the Hayward Gallery in London, the Gropius Bau also provides a new challenge.

Did you always want to work in an exhibition house?

Originally I wanted to have a gallery: even when I was twelve! Until a nasty friend of my father’s told me that it was impossible because neither my parents nor I had enough money and you needed money to have a gallery. When I was a teenager I did finally start working in a gallery only to decide that it was not really the place for me. Although I had the great good fortune to be trained by Fred Jahn who was one of Munich’s greatest gallery-owners, representing Gerhard Richter and A. R. Penck, among others.

What distinguished him as a gallery-owner if you describe yourself as his pupil?

More than anything else: his passion. He kept in close contact with the artists. For me too, the focus is always on the artists – it’s never about me or what I want. My task is to give the artists the chance to extend themselves and to make work that is vital to them. Fred Jahn is amazingly good at that. Working with him was an introduction to the professional art scene, which was very important to me.

What was essential for you instead?

I would like to offer artists a platform where they can realise fascinating and inspiring works and for me that is what public institutions are for. As a curator and director I see it as my central task to support artists and build bridges for them where necessary. My academic career was distinguished from the start by practical work with artists – I carried on working at Fred Jahn at the same time, and then I spend a term abroad in London and decided that that was where I wanted to work. It didn’t happen immediately, it was difficult to find a job then that would cover my living expenses.

Why London at that time?

London is the city I love. The first time I went there I was nineteen and I knew then that eventually I was going to live there. And then much later out of the blue I got an offer from the Director of the Hayward Gallery, Ralph Rugoff. It was a coincidence: I actually wanted to ask him for advice, whether I should go to L.A. to take a job there and instead he said: Why don’t you come and work for me? That was 15 years after I first went to London.

And what had happened in between?

In those years I had created exhibitions at the Haus der Kunst in Munich: I’d started there as a young curator under Christoph Vitali and then worked as curator of Contemporary Art under Chris Dercon. After my time with the galleries I spend almost ten years working at the Haus der Kunst.

What did you learn from Christoph Vitali?

An incredible amount. He had a unique way of treating his team – I have rarely experienced such a pleasant working atmosphere. Of course there were times when we wondered: Why do we have to go and cook everything ourselves? Before an opening the curator would have to go to the wholesale market and buy food, then spend time with him downstairs in the kitchen preparing what would be served later on at the opening – even if you were actually in the middle of installing an exhibition about pictures of the night from the 15th century. Often we would be cooking for 300 people. That created the atmosphere: the entire team was one big family and we achieved some amazing things: huge exhibitions with art from the Middle Ages through to contemporary art in highly unconventional ways. It would be much harder to do that today.

Why is that – what has changed?

The art world has now become more strongly professionalized and commercialized. Back then there were hardly any formal contracts, everything was done on trust. The sums that works were insured for were not as high as they are today: it was an entirely different situation. By the end of my time with Vitali, it was already becoming clear that it in future would be very hard for a museum that didn’t have a collection to set up exhibitions with such prestigious pieces on loan.

You have seen these developments from both sides: in the gallery you saw how the market creates conditions that turn the work of the exhibition houses entirely upside down. And at the same time you know those institutions from the inside. Does that help you?

Fred Jahn was a gallery owner of the old school (one that still exists) who was mainly concerned with having a close relationship with the artists – and he made an active effort to place works in public collections. The bubble that people talk about now is mainly caused by the secondary market, in which I’ve never really been involved. As well as galleries and auction houses there are of course many other active participants who regard art as a luxury product and influence the market accordingly. But we could go on for ever talking about this subject …

The shift you’re talking about happened in the late Nineties?

I believe so. For me a particularly interesting period at the Haus der Kunst was from 1994 to 2000, with exhibitions that combined contemporary and historical works and in doing so made it clear how the issues that concern us today have a lengthy history. It was also possible to show Joan Miró or Adam Elsheimer alongside contemporary aesthetics. Now that’s scarcely possible any more because of the costs of insurance and a different sense of how far works are allowed to travel.

Might that perhaps just be a matter of lacking budgets for exhibitions or does it reflect a different relationship to art?

Of course structures of state funding, which the public institutions in England also rely on, do play a big part. But I sense there is a problem that fewer and fewer new projects that are critical in nature are receiving support. It’s my view that culture’s primary task is to encourage people to take a wider view of the world and to promote the pleasure of critical thinking. And that should happen regardless of how the market and capitalism are connected. State funding should not be linked to audience numbers.

On the other hand in Great Britain public collections are accessible free of charge … That’s not the case in Germany yet.

There is a difference between the large institutions with permanent collections and visiting exhibitions. Visiting exhibitions are always financed partly through ticket sales. But the collections are free.

Would that be a model for Germany?

I am principally in favour of access to culture being free. And not only because institutions are paid for from tax revenues and we pay tax. Particularly with public collections, it would be a great cultural asset if these were accessible free of charge. But a lot of places are already taking initial steps in that direction with special days when entry is free or something similar.

To come back to your own career: how did you manage to continually be organizing exhibitions at the Haus der Kunst and cooking with Christoph Vitali while also completing a doctorate?

That’s another thing I have to thank Vitali for: he gave me eight months off so I could concentrate completely on my doctorate in that time. Although I don’t necessarily think that you need a doctorate now to be able to achieve something in the field of exhibitions. But at that time, after eight years of practical work, I felt the need to explore one topic intensively and to lay down some intellectual foundations. I wrote my doctorate about black paintings, particularly the New York School and Abstract Expressionism and their connections with James McNeill Whistler.

Could you explain that in more detail?

It was about rites de passage, about the use of black and about the transformation process that leads to a defining artistic language and what that means for an artistic process.

If I’ve understood correctly it was more specifically about the middle part of this three stage process, about the rite de marge, which is actually an intermediate phase after separation and before incorporation, this strange “in between” state… This concept keeps recurring in your work. Your work is never only about the visual arts, but about what is in between art forms: in Munich you made an important exhibition with Allan Kaprow, but you also worked with dance.

Being “in between” has become a key principle for my own work, in conceptual terms, but also for the way I approach things. I find it particularly inspiring to place yourself mentally in a room where – figuratively speaking – you don’t know where the doors are. An abstract space in which you don’t know what is going to happen next. That can also be applied to my work as a curator: I frequently don’t know what is going to happen next. I observe what happens: then suddenly you read something, have a conversation, meet artists and notice that there is a dimension that exceeds what you imagined yourself – and that’s where the next door opens. Otherwise you only ever work within your own limitations.

What does that mean for a building like the Gropius Bau?

If you look at the Gropius Bau and regard the entire building as an exhibition and don’t look at each exhibition independently, for me that means that I’m not going to arrive and already know how it works. Or know what the visitors want. What I try to do is enter a space and work out: what is this building trying to do? It means having to withstand the tension of not being able to serve up a ready answer to everyone straight away but to spend some time in that moment of openness: what different needs are there and what might potential answers look like? That, too, is being “in between”, staying in this state of “trying to understand”, of learning, which of course makes you vulnerable and open to attack.

For you what makes up the Gropius Bau’s DNA?

The key thing for me is to go back to the history of the building and investigate how the building reveals itself when you look at it as a body. So to discover: where are its arms, where are its legs, where is its head? I’ve been coming to the Gropius Bau ever since I was a child but when I consciously walked through the building now, I noticed elements I didn’t understand. Like when you inspect an organism and get the feeling, it’s not working properly here. For example, the staircases leading up to the second floor struck me as strange and somehow illogical. Then at some point I had the idea that originally these spaces probably weren’t open to the public and, yes, in fact they were artists’ studios. The whole building was full of studios and workshops that often go unmentioned in standard publications about the Gropius Bau and aren’t something people are generally aware of. As a result of that a few things became clear to me about the building and the way in which the focus should be on the artists. To put it in more abstract terms, this is a place of creativity and bringing things into existence. If something is produced in a building, then that has an enormous effect on its aura, you can feel it when you visit. And if a cultural institution is capable of passing one thing on it should be a sense that this creation, rethinking and conception is essential to art – and a source of pleasure.

That sounds like what the Max Planck Institutes do in the field of science: innovation and research to discover or make use of things and processes in ways that somehow challenge or change the established rules. We can interpret a great deal of the work we do in the various venues of the Berliner Festspiele in that way and those are venues that can produce work on a very large scale. What is most important to you about this work?

I think we’re both interested in thinking about things afresh and looking at them in different ways to those that systems would permit before. It’s an integral part of the Berliner Festspiele’s structure that an institution is regarded as an open organism and that risks will be taken.  We don’t always have to know where it is heading – at its core it can remain open. That is the only way, I believe, that such an institution can be run successfully. We also have to attempt to transcend our own creative boundaries.

I like that image of an open organism. The Gropius Bau is not a fortress. We showed Susanne Kennedy’s production of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” here – a huge installation with very striking spaces and musical encounters. A couple of years later there was the retrospective by Tino Sehgal, which contained no works in the classical sense – instead of the objects that are typically found in exhibitions the entire ground floor was filled with specific situations where performers and visitors would meet: that had a really unforgettable magic. We explored openness in a very different way with the exhibition “Limits of Knowing” that included the co-operation between artists and scientists from the Californian research institute LIGO. Six months later these astrophysicists won the Nobel Prize for measuring gravitational waves. They work with artists because their scientific theories can sometimes seem bizarre and counterintuitive and because of this they find artistic methods of understanding extremely interesting. In a building like this one entirely different artistic and scientific forms regularly come together and that’s why I was immediately interested in you and your work – the Southbank Centre in London is also one of the few institutions with a structure equivalent to our Festspiele.

Bringing together different art forms is not so easy for pragmatic reasons but what isn’t difficult is thinking together. Experts from various different fields can come together and talk about what is currently relevant in their respective disciplines. The Berliner Festspiele with its numerous artistic sections united under one roof has that in the family, so to speak, and is an ideal institution to create such synergies.

In terms of the Gropius Bau, what can be learnt from those other divisions? And where would you apply it?

My expertise is in the visual arts, even if I have had a lot to do with dance and music. But when I walk through these spaces with someone whose background is in choreography or music, I can look at the building in an entirely different way. For me the building’s heart is the Lichthof, the interior courtyard.  From the beginning I thought: that’s where you have to go to be able to feel this building. It’s as if you are constantly circling around a dark space, as if you are always outside and cannot penetrate the interior. That is the most exciting element for me: how do we manage to make the Lichthof the beating heart that everything else radiates from?

Opening up the Lichthof is one of the long-term alterations that you want to make. Everyone will be welcome there to leaf through publications and get into conversations with other people. And then from the Lichthof they will be able to enter the particular environment of the exhibition next door. That really will be a big change in how visitors experience the building. You are giving us the building back, so to speak. That’s a very kind and open gesture. And I’ve noticed similar gestures in your work before: at the Biennale in Sydney for example you developed a concept that was based on a quotation from William Gibson: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. And then, so that that future really could be appreciated, you set up a series of embassies in Sydney, for example an “Embassy of the Real”, which – if I can add a brief anecdote here – I think is a wonderful invention as I studied Creative Writing for the Stage at the University of the Arts because there was a course in “experiencing reality”. As if you needed a university to do that … but perhaps we do need art for that reason. If an effort like that to allow the future to land was not spread across the entire city: what would it look like in the Gropius Bau if the future was already there? In what way can that special artistic moment enter this building?

What my current thinking has in common with Sydney is that we require more complex thinking to be able to talk about relevance for the now, for the time we are living in. Instead of expecting art to create utopian ideas for the future, art presents me with an invitation to drag the future into the present. We live in a time in which it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to be able to say what the future will look like. Art might not help us to find any answers but it can include different levels and therefore make the complexity of the situation evident. Here complexity will initially cause confusion but can then lead to greater understanding.

Is there an example you can use to make that clearer?

What concerns me a great deal is our relationship to our land. Not in the sense of nationhood, but soil, earth. I have always wondered about the fact that there are nations, that there are borders, that somebody can decide where one country begins or ends. But what really kicked off this pre-occupation for me was the influence of Australia and New Zealand where they have a completely different sense of the land on which we live: The land owns you, you don’t own the land. People are less important than the land: all you can ever own is a couple of centimetres of the surface, the rest is common property. These are concepts that are deeply rooted there and yet absolutely incompatible with existing political systems.

On the subject of borders: the wall that divided Berlin and Germany ran directly past the Gropius Bau: a wound between the House of Deputies and this building. What does it mean to you to come back to Germany and work in this building that stood right beside the wall?

I am deeply grateful for this historical responsibility. If you think about everywhere around the world where walls are being built then it is possible to engage with topics of global relevance in this building simply on account of its geographical position. This building has been marked by time. That is also why it was important for me to bring Lee Bul here – who as a South Korean artist has experiences of a divided country. There are so many links with our own country and they automatically create an international context in which we can learn an incredible amount from each other.

Translation: David Tushingham

The German version of this interview is available in the Berliner Festspiele's annual magazine for 2018.