Founded in 1831, the Westfälischer Kunstverein is one of the oldest art associations in Germany and enjoys international standing. The Kunstverein still promotes and establishes young contemporary art to this day and, from the post-war period by the latest, has assumed significant responsibility for the sponsorship of young, up-and-coming artists on an international level in the field of visual art in the City of Münster. The work of several young artists, who would later achieve international recognition in their own right, were presented here to a broader audience for the first time. Whereas the Kunstverein’s exhibition practice is devoted to contemporary art, the focus of the collection is upon medieval painting. The collection itself, comprising approximately 2,000 artworks, has been placed at the disposal of the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur / Westfälisches Landesmuseum (Westphalian State Museum). Having enjoyed an association with the Landesmuseum ever since 1908, the Kunstverein relocated the Museum’s new premises between Domplatz and Rothenburg in 2013.
The Westfälischer Kunstverein was founded in 1831, following shortly after the establishment of the art associations in Düsseldorf and Cologne. As a “collection of contemporary artists and art lovers”, the association initially had three main priorities: the upkeep and preservation of the artistic property from disbanded churches and monasteries within the province, the foundation of a dedicated museum and ultimately the promotion and presentation of contemporary art.
The first exhibition held in the “Kunstverein zu Münster” which was the name the initiative subsequently adopted, took place in the autumn of 1832; more than 200 works by artists from Münster, for the most part paintings and drawings, as well as a few sculptural works from various epochs, were exhibited in the main auditorium of the Academy and positively received by the general public. In 1836, the Kunstverein moved to its first actual exhibition site: in return for a modest rent, the City allowed the Association to use the Old City Vaults, a Renaissance structure from the sixteenth century situated on the Prinzipalmarkt and the corner of Clemens-Ludgeristraße. Up until the building’s demolition in 1902, regular exhibitions were held in the large room on the upper floor; the ground floor housed the Association’s collection of plaster casts as well as the Höhere Zeichenschule (Upper School for Drawing) founded at the Association’s behest until its ultimate closure in 1856.
The Kunstverein’s partly precarious situation around the middle of the nineteenth century, above all on account of financial difficulties, hampered its activities, particularly in terms of its ability to stage exhibitions, however, by means of innovations which appealed to their target audience, these difficulties were gradually alleviated: members of the “Actien-Vereins” (stakeholder company), which was inaugurated in 1835, were offered the opportunity to purchase works in a series of lotteries from 1840 onwards; in addition, the so-called “Nietenblätter”, were added, mainly prints which every member received free of charge at the end of the year.
In order to meet with the taste of its audience, during the second half of the nineteenth century, the Kunstverein concentrated the upon historical and contemporary “Heimat-Kunst” (Art on the theme of the German homeland and folk culture); the rise in the number of acquisitions as well as donations allowed the Kunstverein to extend its collection, which threatened to outgrow in the limited space in the rooms of the Old City Vaults as a direct consequence.
The move to the Westfälisches Landesmuseum’s new building took place in March 1908 and was the result of a contract between the Landesmuseum and the Kunstverein: whereas the latter owned an important collection of old-Westphalian panel paintings, it didn’t have any exhibition rooms large enough in which to display the works; the museum for its part had rooms available but was itself devoid of artworks. Thus, both institutions complemented one another perfectly and continue to do so to this day. The Westfälischer Kunstverein places its collection at the disposal of the Landesmuseum on permanent loan, whereby the museum affords the Association domiciliary rights in return. A large section of the mediaeval artworks exhibited in the museum belong to the Kunstverein and can thus be made accessible to the general public.
During the second decade of the twentieth century, under the directorship of Hermann Ehrenberg, the Kunstverein’s focus changed in favour of exhibitions and the presentation of modern art of international standing. The outbreak of the First World War caused an abrupt shift in the Association’s thematic focus and mission statement towards the trials and hardship of the wartime period; in 1917, its activities ultimately had to be suspended temporarily. After the war, the Kunstverein was effectively destitute and forced to auction its own art treasures.
The following period was characterised by falling membership numbers and financial hardship, not least because of the paralysing economic slump affecting the entire world at the time. In addition, from 1933 onwards, repressive political measures came into play: the exhibition ABSTRACT ART was banned by the National Socialists; the Westfälischer Kunstverein was swallowed up by the Reichskammer für bildende Künste (Imperial Chamber for Fine Arts). Its scope for activity was henceforward proscribed and limited to harmless historical topics and regional art; it was also impossible to elude those “official” topics dictated by National Socialist rulers. Exceptions during this period were exhibitions featuring LOVIS CORINTH and OTTO PANKOK, both taking place in 1935. The Landesmuseum suffered considerable damage when Münster was destroyed in 1944 and its activities were curtailed for a second time in its history.
In 1946, the Association resumed its activities: initially, exhibitions were organised and staged, various series of lectures were reinstituted and annual sponsorship prizes were inaugurated. During the post-war period, the work undertaken by the Westfälischer Kunstverein under the directorship of Harald Seiler was a deliberate continuation of Ehrenberg’s progressive concept whose engagement for modern avant-garde art allowed the Association to gain a significant position in the art world in Germany for the first time.
However, during the 1950s, the modern approach and attitude met with some resistance on the part of the audience, for example, the commemorative exhibition in celebration of AUGUST MACKE’S 70th birthday which was organised in 1957 under the aegis of Carl Bänfer in conjunction with the Landesmuseum. However, the orientation towards international contemporary art did not close off the Association’s position with regard to developments in the region: Westphalian artists were continually being featured, for example, in the exhibition ABSTRACT PAINTING IN WESTPHALIA in the autumn of 1958. Peter Leo, the then director of the Westfälischer Kunstverein, showed works by the former Bauhaus-student JOSEF ALBERS, among other things, effectively anticipating the degree of international recognition Albers would later enjoy.
Leo also managed to borrow paintings by VINCENT VAN GOGH and PIET MONDRIAN from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1960 for an exhibition with the seemingly questionable title EXPRESSIONISM IN HOLLAND. Leo’s successor, Dieter Honisch, also dedicated himself to modernism. For example, he showed works by OSSIP ZADKINE (1964) or ERNST WILHELM NAY in a series of solo exhibitions during the same year. A number of the works presented by Honisch, including paintings by NAY and VICTOR VASARELY, were subsequently bought by the Landesmuseum and thus have extended the range of the collection founded by the Westfälischer Kunstverein. Honisch intensified the Kunstverein’s association with JOSEF ALBERS in 1961, when it encouraged the artist – on the occasion of its »annual edition« resumed three years earlier – to produce his first silkscreen print. Only a few interested parties purchased the print at that time for a princely 5 DM.
Towards the mid-1960s, the accumulated demand for modern art was replaced in favour of a more oppositional programme geared towards the topical concerns of everyday life; in addition, the Kunstverein resumed its activities by means of individual acquisitions of contemporary works. The highpoint in this period was Jürgen Wißmann’s exhibition TENDENCIES WITHIN STRUCTURAL ART in 1966. Fifty-five paintings and sculptures were shown here, including works by JEAN ARP, ANTONIO CALDERARA and AUGUSTE HERBIN. From this period onwards, the scope of the programme also included other art forms of medial art such as visual poetry, which was on presented in 1969 – for the first time in the institutional context of a museum across Germany – in the form of the eponymous exhibition devised by Friedrich Wilhelm Heckmann. Other events concentrated upon the medium of photography in order to illustrate its inherent value as art, which was by no means a matter of course at that time.
In the course of these developments, the Westfälischer Kunstverein began to garner interest beyond its regional boundaries. The recognition of its work appearing in national newspapers and international magazines increasingly established its reputation on the art scene.
Upon completion of the new Westfälisches Landesmuseum in 1971, a move to new premises followed a year later and the Kunstverein was able to establish its very own permanent exhibition site for the first time. The progressive projects implemented by its director, Klaus Honnef, ensured that the Association could take up a strong-willed position in the field of contemporary art. Here are the titles of a few outstanding exhibitions from a long list of its initiatives: in the autumn of 1971, Italian constructivist works were presented in the exhibition ARTE CONCRETA; after several solo exhibitions, Honnef realised the project THE CONCEPT IS THE FORM in the spring, including works by LAWRENCE WEINER, among others, to whom he dedicated a special individual presentation along with other artists from the group show. A series of solo exhibitions presented works by SIGMAR POLKE (1973) and JÖRG IMMENDORF (1973). In his final conceptual initiative as director, Honnef presented works by ULRICH ERBEN, RAIMUND GIRKE, WINFRIED GAUL among others, in the spring of 1974, entitled PLANNED PAINTING.
Running counter to the generally waning business activity of art associations in general, the Westfälischer Kunstverein enjoyed rapidly burgeoning membership numbers at the beginning of the 1970s; the Handelsblatt described it in 1973 as a “culmination in the field of the dissemination of art in our era”. Since 1972, the director also adopted jazz concerts into the programme of events, followed a year later by the film club initiative which was replaced in the ensuing period the then non-existent “communal Cinema”, but which today has been continued in the cinemas in the city. Herbert Molderings took over the reins as director from Klaus Honnef in 1975 and promptly placed photography at the heart of many of his projects for example, in the presentation of artworks by FLORENCE HENRI (1976); in addition to this, the 1976 sponsorship award was awarded for photography for the first time. The exhibition GUERNICA. ART AND POLITICS BASED ON THE EXAMPLE OF GUERNICA. PICASSO AND THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR achieved the highest number of visitors to date: a total of 22,400 visitors saw the exhibition between October 1976 and January 1977. Molderings turned his attention to further controversial political themes by showcasing political poster art in the exhibition CHILEAN POSTERS FROM THE TIME OF ALLENDE’S GOVERNMENT 1970-73. This event was also well attended but unleashed stubborn internal controversy about the potential politicisation of the Westfälischer Kunstverein.
Thomas Deecke took over the directorship of the Institute from 1978 until 1985, and the 150th anniversary of the Association fallen in the middle of his tenure in 1981. For this purpose, he designed the exhibition AVANT-GARDE RETROSPECTIVE, featuring a retrospective appreciation of the high points of former presentations by the Westfälischer Kunstverein, organised in conjunction with the previous directors. Over and above this, Deecke realised an ambitious programme in favour of avant-garde contemporary art, to which exhibitions such as REBECCA HORN, DER EINTÄNZER (1979) or LANGUAGES BEYOND POETRY from the same year bear ample witness; ROMAN OPALKA (1981) followed a year later, then two shows by STEPHAN HUBER. THE REALM OF GOD IS FLYING: THE KUNSTVEREIN IS DANCING and VIDEO ART IN GERMANY, both in 1982. Deecke focused thematically upon the medium of photography with works by BOYD WEBB (1982); contemporary sculpture and objects by CARL ANDRE (1984) and MICHELANGELO PISTOLETTO (1983) were also exhibited. Deecke also managed to secure works by the leading artist, JÜRGEN PARTENHEIMER, whose drawings entitled THE ARCH’S SITE were exhibited in 1984-85.
Continuing the collecting tradition and practice inaugurated by the Kunstverein, Deecke’s successor, Marianne Stockebrand, instigated a new collection of contemporary art for the Westfälischer Kunstverein in the form of works on paper. The majority of these acquisitions came from exhibitions held at the Association, so that the resumption of the collecting activity is documented today in this series of prints ranging from SOL LEWITT and CHRISTA NÄHER and watercolours by GERHARD RICHTER.
The exhibitions under the Stockebrand’s aegis explored a broad spectrum of diverse artistic media and forms, encompassing photography (CINDY SHERMAN, 1985/86) and drawing (EDWARD RUSCHA, 1986), murals (GÜNTHER FÖRG, 1986) and sculptures (KATHARINA FRITSCH. NEW SCULPTURES, 1989) to the same degree as works from the fields of architecture and design.
A special interest within her activities in the Westfälischer Kunstverein lay in the classical positions of Minimalism, such as exhibitions featuring BARNETT NEWMAN (1986), FRED SANDBACK. VERTICAL CONSTRUCTIONS (1987) and SOL LEWITT. WALLDRAWINGS (1987). In WATERCOLOURS (1985), Stockebrand presented works by JOSEPH BEUYS and GERHARD RICHTER alongside works of other artists; she compiled works by BRUCE NAUMAN, SIGMAR POLKE and ANDY WARHOL, among others, exhibiting them under the rubric of ANSICHTEN (VIEWS). She also exhibited the works of highly representative artists in a series of solo exhibitions, such as GEORG HEROLD (1986), JEFF WALL (TRANSPARENCIES, 1988) or CHRISTA NÄHER in the show NEW PAINTINGS (1988/89). Friedrich Meschede devoted particular attention to different approaches within installation art during his tenure as director. He pursued this interest in projects featuring artists such as ULRICH GÖRLICH (PHOTO INSTALLATION, 1990/91) and HUBERT KIECOL (1990/91); in 1992, he exhibited works by JESSICA STOCKHOLDER, as well as work by ELLSWORTH KELLY in the atrium of the old building. Within the framework of the cycle of exhibitions entitled “Contemporary Painting”, Meschede presented HOLGER BUNK in 1990 with a series of painted installations and paper works; in the same year, he presented the painting of GÜNTER UMBERG. A significant presentation from the field of sculpture took the form of the work TWO ROOMS which RONI HORN designed for Münster in 1991.
Meschede’s innovative concept was also articulated in the provision of a forum for solo exhibitions for the first time in Germany to artists such as ILONA RUEGG (CONTEMPORARY EDGE, 1990) and HERMANN PITZ (PANORAMA, 1991).
The next director Heinz Liesbrock brought the more recent acquisitions from the storeroom for the first time to put them on display in the show PAPER COLLECTION: WESTFÄLISCHER KUNSTVEREIN (1996); other projects were dedicated to current trends in architecture: the exhibitions THE NEW CITY: ROTTERDAM IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. UTOPIA AND REALITY (1993) and ARCHITECTURE OFFICE BOLLES/WILSON (1993/94). Works by painters, such as EDWARD HOPPER, AD REINHARDT or GIORGIO MORANDI were presented in the show QUESTION OF FOUR PAINTINGS (1993); RICARDO SARO (1994) and DAVID REED (1995/96) were featured in respective solo shows.
Susanne Gaensheimer was appointed director of the Kunstverein in November 1999. Her first project INSIDE-OUT, a group show featuring works by TILO SCHULZ, APOLONIJA SUSTERSIC and NATHAN COLEY, kicked off a thematically and formally altered programme by the institution’s standards up to that point, which, on the one hand, concentrated upon the production processes of new works, as well as communication with the audience, and with the discussion of selected themes on the other. This concept manifested itself in discussion forums with artists and lectures which were offered in tandem the shows and in supporting events, such as the congress WHERE IS THE CENTER? that was staged as the pendent to the exhibition REAL PLACES. In addition, the collaboration with TILO SCHULZ was continued in the project SUNRISE OVER THE YELLOW STRIPES, a series of events conceived by the artist within the framework of the exhibition INSIDE-OUT to discuss gender-specifically coded topics within western societies in order to challenge stereotypical patterns of interpretation. The artist introduced visitors from the most varied backgrounds who duly expressed themselves in varying media on selected topics, for example, in lectures and discussions on HOMOSEXUALITY AND PUBLIC SPACE or WOMEN AND FOOTBALL or a concept that approached the phenomenon of historical cowboys via the fusion of music and moderated conversations.
In 2001, Carina Plath was appointed director of the Westfälischer Kunstverein. She realised a number of solo shows in the years that followed, featuring artists such as PAWEL ALTHAMER, WILHELM SASNAL, GUSTAV METZGER and MARTIN BOYCE, as well as group shows that focused upon the question of the relationship between social and aesthetic aspects in art. In 2007, Plath participated in the “sculpture projects münster 07” as an associate curator and part of a team comprising Brigitte Franzen and Kasper König. Under Plath’s directorship, the Westfälischer Kunstverein was awarded the ADKV’s German Art Association Prize at Art Cologne in 2008.
The curator Katja Schroeder became the new director of the Westfälischer Kunstverein in 2010. She continued the programme, for which she had been responsible during Carina Plath’s maternity leave since the beginning of 2009.
Since 2009, the Westfälischer Kunstverein was faced with demolition and the subsequent rebuilding of the Landesmuseum, which meant a period without fixed premises and exhibition rooms. In peripatetic fashion and at a continually changing number of locations, Katja Schroeder presented exhibitions featuring PEGGY FRANCK, ALICJA KWADE, MAYA SCHWEIZER, SIMON DENNY and YORGOS SAPOUNTZIS, among others, as well as themed group shows represented by many international artistic positions dealing with a variety of topics, such as the fleeting nature of cultural positioning, the concept of the model, the question of how art can be disseminated or the shortcomings of reality.
After a phase of devising and implementing the programme ‘on the hoof’ that lasted for four years, the Kunstverein was finally able to relocate to and take up residence in the new premises between Domplatz and Rothenburg. Kristina Scepanski has been director of the Westfälischer Kunstverein since 2013.
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