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Holing Up with Hollein: Städel’s Current Expansion, Nazi-Era History (plus Whitney’s David Smith show)

Max Hollein, director of
Frankfurt’s Städel Museum, Schirn Kunsthalle and Sculpture Collection of the Liebieghaus
Photo: Gaby Gerster
© Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt/Gabi Gerste

I’m always peskily pointing a finger at other peoples’ mistakes, so I guess I should own up to one of my own.

As CultureGrrl readers may remember (although I probably shouldn’t remind you), I posted, back in August 2008, that an “informed” source had told me that the four-person shortlist for the directorship of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was believed to include three Met curators (including the ultimate victor, Thomas Campbell) and a wild card, Max Hollein, Frankfurt-based director of the Schirn Kunsthalle since 2001 and, since 2006, also director of the Städel Museum and the Sculpture Collection of the Liebieghaus.

I rashly predicted that this German wild card would win New York’s premier art-museum directorship.

Less than a month later, at the end of the press conference that introduced Campbell as the anointed one, then director Philippe de Montebello teased me about my bad call. But I didn’t know how misguided I really was until wild card Max himself, visiting New York for two days recently, invited this gullible scribe to chat with him, drink some coffee and also (as it turned out) eat some crow. We had a wide-ranging discussion, which included details about the Städel’s major capital project and also his take on his institution’s problematic Nazi-era history, the subject of a recently concluded study that he oversaw.

Son of the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Hans Hollein, Max arrived at our table at Untitled, the Whitney Museum’s restaurant, carrying a flipbook of photos to illustrate his discussion of the Städel’s almost concluded 50-million-Euro renovation and underground expansion, designed by Frankfurt architects schneider+schumacher. The museum will open its modern galleries in mid-November and its old master galleries in mid-December and its new contemporary wing in February.

The new wing features portholes in its sod-covered roof, which will illuminate the grounds at night…


…and will function during the day as skylights for the flexibly configured galleries:

Renderings © schneider+schumacher architects

While at the Whitney (which I chose as our meeting place), Hollein took in the mildly engaging Feininger show (now closed) and the exhilarating David Smith show (to Jan. 8). He seemed as surprised as I had been, when I mentioned that Karen Rosenberg of the NY Times had been lukewarm about the Smith show, which had given me a rush of pleasure, both for the quality of works (gleaned from a variety of lenders) and for the interactions of examples from diverse media.

A smaller version of the display organized by Carol Eliel for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Smith show includes not just well chosen examples of his sculpture (both late, large masterpieces and early, small works), paintings and drawings, but also a group of Smith’s less known photographs of his own work (more famously photographed by Dan Budnik), as well as several of his fascinating sketchbooks. They include this object lesson in how he took the forms in a photograph of a violinist and abstracted them:

Spread from Sketchbook #40, 1950-54, Estate of David Smith

Here are two views from the Whitney’s spacious installation:



But back to Max: He impressed me with his astute ideas regarding museum management and collection-building, not to mention his singular career of managing three independent art venues simultaneously. He has been notably resourceful in raising support for the privately funded Städel (with important old master and modern collections), in a society where many museums get substantial public subsidies. (The Schirn and Liebieghaus are both municipally funded institutions.) Although about 20% of the Städel’s operating budget comes from the city, “it’s really the citizens who have to step in,” he sald. The new wing is about 65% privately funded.

Noting that he is more proactive in soliciting private funds than most German art museums officials, he noted that he is “very fond of the idea that people who have benefited from society give back and want to become involved.” (Hollein is well acquainted with the American fundraising approach, having previously lived in New York and worked at the Guggenheim Museum.)

The only time when his otherwise confident, fluent reponses to my questions grew uncharacteristically hesitant was when I asked how his museum might address the revelations, published in a recent study that he himself had co-authoried, regarding the Städel’s role in the Nazi era (or, as he called it, “the time of National Socialism”).

Hollein noted that his institution had rescued some Expressionist works that would otherwise have been destroyed by the Nazis, who regarded them as “degenerate.” But, he acknowledged, it also acquired works that had been expropriated from Jewish owners. (This history is described in detailed in Eckard Michels‘ review, not online, of this German-only book, which was published in the October 2011 Art Newspaper.)

Hollein never directly answered my question, though, about how, going forward, his museum would specifically address these candid, disturbing revelations. He did note, however, that restitutions by his museum had previously been made.

Noting that when he arrived, the museum “knew very little” about the about the Städel’s Nazi-era role, Hollein stated:

I said, “Let’s take the subject very differently, be completely open about it and deeply research it with an outside research group….A lot of it we knew, a lot of it we didn’t. It’s ambiguous.

After some digressions, he repeated my previous question, “What comes next?” But he didn’t put forward an action plan:

Not only have we learned a lot, but this made us understand that these were also, although we tried to neglect it, formative years of the institution. And you have to be very sensitive about that. This is a moment where the institution went through a period that had significant results, both in losing works from the collection, in having acquired works….

The Städel was one of the first institutions to start researching the provenance of its work, which started way before my time. We restituted a couple of works, which isn’t directly linked to the research. I think our efforts for restituting works were actually amplified through the research.

At the Städel, I don’t think there are too many difficulties still there, because the core part of the works acquired during the Second World War were already restituted in the Fifties. There are always requests for information and we continue to work on that.

When you say, “What’s next,” it’s to be more open and not be secretive about that time. The time between 1933 and 1945 will be an integral part of our history and no longer the black hole where we say, “It was the dark ages of Germany so we went into hiding.” It’s  part of the institutional development, with its results—some of them actually positive, where we would never have this Expressionist collection, but some of it obviously negative.

Towards the end of our chat, on a day when he was also planning to visit some artists and attend the meeting of the board (of which he is a member) of the Neue Galerie, I couldn’t resist asking two burning New York questions: What vision would he have brought to the Met, had he been chosen to lead it? And what had the search process been like?

Whereupon Max (figuratively) dropped an egg on my head:

I was never in the process. I know that people talked about me and I think that people even did background information. But I was not involved in it.

Splat! Egg on my face. So much for sources.

But let’s move on: Would someone like to leak to me plausible shortlists for the directorships of the Getty Museum and Houston Museum of Fine Arts?!?

an ArtsJournal blog