by Lara Saget
In conversation with Lisa Marei Schmidt, curator of A-Z The Marzona Collection on view from January 24, 2014- May 29, 2016 at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin, Germany.
Lara Saget: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Let’s begin with your educational background to better understand your curatorial practice. What was your education like?
Lisa Marei Schmidt: I have two Masters of Arts degrees; I studied Art History and German literature in Marburg, Amsterdam, and Berlin. And a couple of years later I did an MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art in London.
LS: Why did you decide to return to school for the second Master of Arts degree?
LMS: After the first one, I started working. In Germany, to have a museum career, the most straight forward career path is doing a PHD. I actually decided to do something a bit more discursive or practical. The program at the Royal College of Art really spoke to me as a combination of practice, theory, and working together with a small group of international students.
LS: Education seems to be an important part of your life and curatorial practice. Do you consider the exhibition space a platform for viewer education?
LMS: We are an educational institution as a museum. We are paid for by public money, and I think you cannot presume that everyone understands contemporary art. You have to make it available to everyone, even those with no art history background. With contemporary art, it often needs a bit more explanation and introduction.
LS: Do you think that your education informed this belief that the museum is an educational institution or did your work after university solidify this notion?
LMS: Probably both. I think it is a personal understanding of the institution of the museum, but it was also helpful to study at the Royal College of Art because there were a lot of discussions. You curate a show there together so you really need to communicate with each other about everything, the artist you want to show, the title of the exhibition, etc. I felt strongly that I like to make museums more accessible and open as public space
LS: I agree. How do you consider your job is as a curator?
LMS: I think the job of a curator is taking care of the works of the museum, the collection, and the artists that you invite to produce new works. But it also means to me taking care of the audience and communicating with them. You are the middleman in a way.
LS: Completely. Do you think your role as curator shifts in the context of the museum as opposed to independent curatorial projects?
LMS: I have to think about this because I think that education and communication are important parts regardless. I think it is important to make it- accessible isn’t the right word- in Germany we say that you have to “lower the threshold” to make it easier to enter. I think that would still be my goal as a curator wherever I would work. But you can be more adventurous in a way in different circumstances. I think you also have to look at the audience that is in the space. We at the Hamburger Bahnhof have a very broad audience. We have a lot of artists, but we also have a lot of tourists and visitors in Berlin, and I think that you need to keep this in mind too–how to communicate with the audience that you get. You need to adjust to where your audience comes from. If they know nothing about conceptual art, of course, you need to explain a bit about contemporary art before you speak about individual works. If they are art historians or artists, you can have a different discussion.
LS: And personally, what alliance do you feel to the artist? How do you keep the artist’s voice alive or do it justice?
LMS: I think that is the job of the curator. With a collection, the artists might not be alive anymore, but you want to show work in the way it was meant to be shown. I am not a curator who uses an installation-based style. The most important thing is the work, and the installation should not be visible. Even when I am working with living artists, I am always trying to help them realize the best version of the work.
LS: Speaking of the job of the curator, in your experience, how challenging is state funding for curatorial projects to acquire?
LMS: You can focus on the intellectual part and the research if you don’t have to do too much fundraising. I know colleagues of mine in the UK and North America who have to spend around 80% of their job time fundraising. Of course, in Germany, we still have a very good situation with state funding; it will definitely change over the next some years I would say. When you have no one to do the fundraising, it becomes the job of the curator, which is a shame because he or she could use that time differently. And then there are often demands with the money you get. When you get public money, you’re mostly independent. But if you have to look for grants and financial support from galleries and foundations, it can change the curatorial direction.
LS: Very true. Speaking specifically about your project A-Z The Marzona Collection at the Hamburger Bahnhof, it is clearly a very ambitious project, with such tightly packed curatorial programming. The presentation is altered every quarter of a year in keeping with the sequence of the alphabet, moving all the way from A- Z. Each letter is used to highlight important aspects of the collection. How many people worked on this project in total?
LMS: I don’t think you want to know [laughs]. I think at the beginning we didn’t realize how ambitious it was. It was just me, and then I developed the idea of the office with my colleague from the education department, Daniela Bystron. The office is the growing archive space where visitors can find additional information on the subjects, artworks, and artists on display, and they can also see what has been shown so far. Our staff includes the conservators at our museum, Carolin Bohlmann and Tommi Seewald, who manage our art storage. We work with external art handlers as well. The graphic designers, Julia Born and Laurenz Brunner, were also important collaborators for this project. We had a lot of discussions prior to the opening about the graphic design for the invite, and even more conversations about the exhibition display, and so-called office.
LS: Wow. Such a small team for such a large endeavor. What was your strategy for the project to enable such a rapid turnover from one of the nine presentations to next? How were you able to do it?
LMS: That is a good question. You have to be very organized. You have to prioritize and think two steps ahead. We have quite a bureaucratic administration. The Hamburger Bahnhof is part of the Nationalgalerie, which is one of the National Museums of Berlin, and so we have a centralized Human Resource Department and a centralized Finance Department. They need everything ahead of time. But the project is also a lot of fun. I think most curators could not imagine any other job. It is not only a job; it is also a hobby.
LS: Entirely. And how was the concept for this project initially conceived?
LMS: It came together because I started working at the museum, and I was interested in the Marzona collection. The curators here, in addition to other projects, each work specifically with one collection. The other two main private collections in the museum, the Flick collection and the Marx collection, both had permanent displays, and the Marzona collection, which holds mainly, conceptual and minimal art of the 1960s and 1970s was dispersed in between, but there was not space dedicated to this collection. I thought it would be interesting to create a space, which shows the collection permanently, but with a different type of display.
The alphabet was a great framework for this because conceptual artists thought a lot about systems, but also language. It is kind of a framework, which is strict, but you can also use it very playfully. I am not using the letters only to present artists or movements. For example, the letters on display now are P, Q, and R. R stands for artist Ed Ruscha, but P is a motif themed room around the motif of ‘process.’ Q is a very playful approach because it stands for ‘Questions & (various) Answers.’ I think that I placed many different ideas into the framework of A-Z, but the starting point was definitely to show this collection over a longer period of time. I think that is a perfect way to get to know the collection.
LS: How did you select the subcategories within A-Z The Marzona Collection?
LMS: For some weeks it was a bit like playing scrabble I must confess [laughs]. The basic idea is to show the Marzona collection. I am not showing the entirety, but the most important works and artists. It was a bit like playing scrabble because, of course, you can show different aspects of the different themes. For example, everyone expected conceptual art to be under C. But in Germany, it would be under K because Konzeptkunst is spelled with a K, but I placed it under I for ‘idea.’ It was partially because the K and the C were already taken by other things. First, I made a list of all of the words that I wanted to show, and then I tried good combinations of the three rooms together so that it worked as one presentation. The words also had to fit under the letter designated for that room. It was a bit difficult for a couple of weeks. I was confused. It was important to plan the entire structure prior to the opening. Some things changed, but it was important to have an outline of the whole project so that everything I wanted to show was considered.
But for example, in the next presentation, which is STU, S is another artist room dedicated to one installation by Fred Sandback. T stands for “text” because a lot of these artists used text and language in their work. This room includes work by Lawrence Weiner, for example, or Jenny Holzer. And U is a funny one again because I tried to fit in different curatorial concepts. U stands for ‘Unsorted, Uncurated.’ And in German there was also the word “unbedingt,” which means really pressing, and I asked all of my colleagues in the museum, not only the curators, but also the registrar, secretary, press person, to choose one work from the collection that hadn’t been shown, but that they really wanted to be shown. My colleagues had some great, but really subjective reasons, like “the work reminded me of dj-ing in my youth.”
I think the project is also a great way to think about the institution of the museum and curatorial practice. You can try out different things; for example, under J we have the ‘Joker’ room, the play card, that you can give away freely, which I handed to the artist Ruth Buchanan, who made very interesting work around notions of collections and display. So there are different entry points, which I think is interesting. We will compile a publication after the whole two and a half years, which I want to not only be an exhibition catalogue, but it should also open up different discussions and questions about working with a collection of conceptual art.
LS: How do you consider the role of the office in the exhibition?
LMS: I think it is a really important part of the exhibition. Within the Hamburger Bahnhof, I have four rooms for A-Z, three exhibition rooms and one office, so a quarter of the whole project is handed over to the visitors. The office is a room with a big table and a copy machine. It is a space for the visitors to hang out, and we have events there as well. We included a shelf system in the office, which holds information about the exhibition. The introduction text and the floor plan are moved to the office at the end of each presentation, and installation shots and relevant books are added. Each shelf thereby holds information about what has been on display, including folders with different sorts of texts about the works and artists shown. For a lot of people conceptual art can be quite dry or inaccessible, so it is important for people who are interested to be able to find more information. And there is also a photocopy machine, so viewers can photocopy texts that they are interested in.
LS: Have you noticed that the inclusion of the office or reading room changes how viewers respond to the exhibition?
LMS: That is a difficult question. I see that a lot of people take time in the reading room and read through the material and photocopy material. But I don’t know how they see the exhibition afterwards. I hope it makes more sense because the project is very conceptual itself, so if viewers just come in and read on a big yellow board ‘STU #7/9,’ I think it’s quite hard to grasp the concept. I think that is another good thing about the office or reading room, you can see this growing archive of the exhibition. You see there have been things before and there will be things to come so you get a better idea of the entire project, which I think is very important.
LS: Yes, absolutely. Has the Hamburger Bahnhof utilized the tool of the reading room before?
LMS: I think that they have used several, but not over such a long period of time. We have had some reading areas during exhibitions, but the exhibitions tend to be 3-4 months long. Here, it was very important that the project was done with my colleague in the Education Department, Daniela Bystron, because it I felt it was very important that it stayed for the duration of the exhibition.
LS: In my experience, I found the office quite effective. Changing tracks a bit- what curators do you admire and for what reasons?
LMS: I think I follow institutions more than curators. I enjoy the program that Alex Farquharson did at Nottingham Contemporary, who is now becoming the head of Tate Britain. It is a very imaginative program. He’s not afraid to try out new things and ideas. They just did a project with Pablo Bronstein and the Chatsworth Historic collection, which is interesting. He also made a great book about Brian Wilson, the singer of the Beach Boys, a couple of years ago. I also always liked the program that Charles Esche did at the Van Abbemuseum, how they look at collection display and shake things up, question the old collection, and work with it.