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Max Facts: How Hollein Straddles the Divides Between Contemporary/Historic, Tech/Traditional

When I interviewed him more than a year ago over lunch in New York, Frankfurt museum director Max Hollein and I were obsessed with technology.

I was then working on this Wall Street Journal article about how museums use technology to improve the gallery experience (or not). He was promoting the new Digital Extension initiative at the Städel Museum, one of the three Frankfurt museums that he currently directs.

Digital prestidigitations with Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein's "Goethe in The Roman Campagna," 1787 Photo: Städel Museum

Hands On: Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein,
“Goethe in The Roman Campagna,” 1787
Photo: Städel Museum

Now poised to lead the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in the Tech Capital of the World, after having helped celebrate the Städel’s 200th anniversary last year, Hollein will have access to leading innovators who can help him devise cutting-edge enhancements (or, if he’s not careful, digital distractions) for museum visitors, whether on site or online.

Here’s what I had written for the WSJ regarding the experimental technological forays at Hollein’s future professional home:

Perhaps no major art museum is better situated to take advantage of the technological revolution than the de Young Museum, a willing test laboratory for inventions it receives free from its Silicon Valley neighbors. “If we’re not really pushing to the edges on all counts, I don’t feel like we’re being very responsible,” said Richard Benefield, the museum’s chief operating officer, exulting in his institution’s presence “in the tech capital of the world.”

Housebound disabled art lovers delight in their virtual visits to the de Young, courtesy of two robots (provided by Suitable Technologies), equipped with screens, cameras, microphones and Wi-Fi, that can be guided from home computers. But the museum’s flirtation with Google Glass for a recent Keith Haring exhibition became a one-show stand when Google stopped selling its high-tech eyewear to consumers. (It may eventually issue a new version.)

For three reasons, Hollein seems like a good fit for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (which encompass the de Young and the Legion of Honor): He already has extensive experience directing more than one museum simultaneously; he is keen on adapting the latest technology to the dissemination of art knowledge; his art interests range from old masters to contemporary.

Städel Museum's new underground contemporary art galleries Photo: Städel Museum

Städel Museum’s new underground contemporary art galleries
Photo: Städel Museum

During our conversation, he hit the right notes about not letting digital distractions interfere with the objects themselves. How he will juggle these priorities in practice remains to be seen. I’m not sure I agree with Benefield that FAMSF should be “pushing to the edges on all counts.” And I’m not reassured by the image at the top of this post, which seems to contradict what Max said to me about having most digital enhancements “happen outside of the museum.”

Meanwhile, the de Young keeps “pushing to the edges,” having recently launched a new personal tour guide app. The other big art museum in town, which reopens to the public in May, has been in the technological vanguard for decades (thanks, in part, to veteran innovator Peter Samis, now associate curator of interpretation), long before anyone had heard of a magic kingdom called Silicon Valley. Dormant for three years of construction and reinstallation, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has thus far declined to give me any inkling of what new tech tricks it may have up its sleeve.

But back to Max. Here’s some of what he told me—on tech and other topics—when we lunched near Carnegie Hall in November 2014. In the interest of clarity and structure (his German-inflected English is sometimes awkwardly phrased), I have edited our conversation [and added a few of my own italicized asides, in brackets]:

On the Städel’s “Digitorial” initiative: We send our visitors, in advance, a small course and say, “If you look at this, you might have a richer experience when you are visiting us.” It’s not a narrative of the show, but it gives you a certain education before you come. It’s like reading the text [libretto] beforehand if you go to the opera.

It’s not so much to trigger visits. It’s more to be one of the main educators for culture. If it’s not really being done by schools and universities for the broader public, maybe we can offer something.

[According to its online description, the Digitorial “allows the public to get into the right mood for the issues of the exhibition before visiting it.” Here’s an example—the online prep material for the current show of “Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici Florence.”]

On Digital Catalogues: We’ll publish fairly sophisticated digital artbooks which are based on the software that we’ve been developing for the last 2½ years. Right now, the big advantage of a digital book is it doesn’t weigh so much and it’s easier to distribute. The real advantage is in the picture-driven books—art catalogues and photo books. There you can animate digital imagery. It is much more advanced than the printed book.

Let’s say you have a book on Michelangelo: You can circle around the “David.” In our sculpture museum, the Liebieghaus, we have the largest 3D scanner in the world, which can scan objects and x-ray them. It gives a lot of scientific data about the surface and the interior structure, which is especially interesting with wooden sculpture. It provides data to do perfect 3D images in artbooks to animate the 3D views of sculpture.

If you have a digital Richter catalogue raisonné, it sends you the new works every year. Or you can see how a painting is built up, layer by layer, the way we examine old master paintings.

Will they replace printed art books? Probably not in the short run. But they will be more advanced.

On Selling Art Reproductions: The biggest drugstore company in Germany wanted to go into the high-end print market. We curated for them an art site where their audience can order reproductions that are matted and framed, and we can tell the history of the painting—the narrative. These get sent to you with white gloves [!?!] and a letter from the director. Every museum sells posters and reproductions. I wanted to do it in a way that creates an almost emotional attachment to the work.

On Keeping a Separation Between the Digital and the Actual: I’m a strong believer that these are two different areas. Almost all of these [digital] things happen outside of the museum, on different platforms.

I don’t want to clutter the museum with all sorts of [digital] displays. For me, the museum experience is one thing, and we want to maintain that. With all the visual noise that surrounds you, you look at information these days in multiple ways. I have a fairly conservative approach about this in museums. I like the idea that it’s a slowed down, focused environment.

What’s not good is if you have monitors next to the paintings, because the attraction of the moving image is so strong that everyone is immediately drawn there. I’m fine that the museum is being used for social media and interaction. We have Wi-Fi throughout the museum. But I don’t want the visual, aesthetic standpoint of perceiving art to be sidetracked.

On the Städel’s Recent Underground Expansion: The biggest outcomes of it are not entirely related to the space or to attendance figures. The biggest result is that the people feel very associated with it and they keep helping us to enrich the collection in a massive way that is unheard of in Germany.

It also completely changed, from a German perspective, the idea of philanthropy for a museum—how much you can do and how much responsibility the public or the citizens will take. It has put things in motion and the motion hasn’t stopped. That is very good for our future!

On the Städel’s Connection to Germany’s Ongoing Nazi-Related Restitution Controversies: We continue our research and have done several more restitutions. The information keeps changing, in the sense that after you’ve researched and you’ve come to the conclusion that this is this, and that is that, other archives spring up with more information. So you have to look again at some of these things, where you thought this or that family was not being harassed or whatever, but then, out of another archive, you discover a different story.

Our previous concept of having 250 more to go [still needing more research] was not really valid. What we are experiencing is that there is even more awareness and new material, which makes us reevaluate some of the conclusions that we made.

It’s no excuse. We are aggressively pursuing it. But I think that [contrary to] the goal that I had in mind—that we would be done in four years—I have to understand that it’s an ongoing process. We can do our due diligence as well we can and be as forthcoming as we can, but still we will have surprises and new examinations on that front.

I think certainly everyone is focused on it and trying the best they can. There are tricky legal components and it is a major embarrassment, obviously. [“Embarrassment,” I’d say, is putting it mildly.]

On His Success in Attracting Private (Non-Government) Financial Support: 20% of our financial support [at the Städel] is public money; the rest is private. When I came there, it was probably 35% public. What I’ve changed is that the whole operation of the museum has expanded and I brought in a lot more money from private sources. At the Schirn [which he also directs], 50% of the support is public and 50% private sponsorship. When I came, it was 100% public. The money from the city stayed the same, but we expanded the outreach.

On Being the Son of Hans Hollein, the Late Architect: Scholars are asking for material about my father. We have to find a way to organize the archives. It is typical for an architect to amass an enormous amount of material, and he never organized the material. So we have piles and piles of things that are super-fascinating, even important, but it’s completely disorganized!

Did FAMSF’s loose-lipped board president, Diane (“Dede”) Wilsey, have Hollein’s architect genes in mind when she told the San Francisco Chronicle‘s art critic, Charles Desmarais (but apparently not Max himself) that “she wants to build” an expansion, on a plot next to the de Young?

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