Interview: Nicolaus Schafhausen

by Kate Green

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      Photo by Steffen Jagenburg

      Nicolaus Schafhausen, Director of the Rotterdam-based contemporary art center Witte de With, delivered a talk at Arthouse as part of its Visiting Lecture series on November 11th. For ...might be good, Kate Green followed up with more questions about his institution, its programming and the challenges of fundraising and building an audience.

      …might be good [...mbg]: During your Arthouse talk, one of the main issues you raised was your desire for the Witte de With to engage more than just the arty audience who will come to the museum regardless of what is on view or happening. Can you talk about the challenges of engaging a wider audience?

      Nicolaus Schafhausen [NS]: The problem is location. Rotterdam is not a destination city. It is not a tourist spot, nor is it a “global” city. Another problem is that the Witte de With is a contemporary museum. The works we show are unfamiliar to many who live in the city, and people generally want the familiar in their viewing experience.

      …mbg: In your talk you emphasized the role that programming can play in reaching a wider audience. Can you say more? You mentioned teen programs, web-based dialogues…

      NS: Yes, and also academic conferences and lectures. All of these programs reach completely different audiences.

      …mbg: What about programming for kids?

      NS: I think that there is a little too much focus on museum programs for kids in the United States. I think that it is almost impossible for children to connect with contemporary art.

      ...mbg: I don’t think that this is true. In my experience, kids are often much more open to unfamiliar art than adults. Perhaps this is because, for them, almost everything is unfamiliar.

      NS: I don’t want to seem negative. Perhaps I am just more interested in programs for teenagers and young adults.

      ...mbg: What about exhibitions? How does your thinking about audiences play into your curatorial choices?

      NS: At the Witte de With we do topical exhibitions that address cultural or political issues, but we also do solo shows. When I am selecting an artist for a solo show I am not thinking about the audience. That comes later.

      ...mbg: With the exhibition’s programming?

      NS: Yes. Programming is part of extending the audience—branding.

      ...mbg: I see what you mean in the way that educational programming can be used to make more people aware of the museum or its exhibitions. Programming is often used as part of fundraising efforts too. Donors like to fund education programs, hence the growth of education departments. Do you think programming and funding are intimately linked?

      NS: Yes.

      ...mbg: In your talk you alluded to big funding changes on the horizon at the Witte de With. Will the changes affect programming?

      NS: I was referring to a recent shift in political power in the Netherlands. With the new party in power government funding for art institutions has been drastically reduced. Some institutions have had their funding reduced by 50% over the span of a year. And you have to remember that in the Netherlands there is no history of individual or corporate funding. So when state support evaporates, there is no natural way to fill the gap. How will the cuts affect programming? It is too early to tell.

      ...mbg: Can you say more about how the cultural funding structure in the Netherlands compares to cultural funding structures elsewhere?

      NS: In the United States, museums are mostly funded by individuals or corporations. In Germany, there is a mix of sources—private and public. This is the healthiest model.

      ...mbg: Is the Netherlands’ government-funded model unhealthy because it is not sustainable in the changed political climate?

      NS: Yes, but it is also unhealthy because individual artists get a tremendous amount of direct support from the state. This turns them into little companies rather than political bodies. Choosing to fund individuals is a populist gesture. Choosing to fund institutions is a political decision. The latter is much more important, I think.

      ...mbg: And is funding for individuals receding under the new plan in the Netherlands?

      NS: No. Under the new plan, funding for individual artists remains the same.

      ... mbg: I wonder whether the differences in funding structures in the Netherlands and the United States result in different types of programs and exhibitions in their respective museums.

      NS: I don’t think so. Do you think that critical discourse is more relevant in the United States than it is in the Netherlands? Are issues of representation talked about more in the United States than in the Netherlands?

      .. mbg: I don’t think so.

      NS: There are not a lot of people who are interested in those issues anywhere. What we are doing is completely elitist, though there is nothing wrong with it.

      ...mbg: So what about efforts to engage more audiences?

      NS: I think there is a maximum number of people that can be reached; I aim to reach that maximum number.

      ...mbg: What if an institution’s satellite or educational programming brings a lot of people to the institution, but those people are not engaged in the issues in the exhibitions? Is that okay?

      NS: It’s totally fine.

      ...mbg: Though I have organized plenty of programs like that myself, I worry about it sometimes. If more energy goes into programs, then less goes into exhibitions, right? Do exhibitions just become something extra?

      NS: Yes, they become less important. I don’t know whether that is okay. It is a burning question.

      ...mbg: If you believe that a visual artwork is not more important than a film or a lecture, then maybe it is okay. The problem is that we conceive of these spaces primarily for the display of visual art. And sometimes they don’t seem to revolve around visual art anymore.

      NS: Is the café supporting the exhibitions, or vice versa? The problem is that contemporary art is so abstract. It is not easy to explain. It is not easy to contextualize.

      ...mbg: I disagree.

      NS: For many, that which is unfamiliar is irrelevant. But audiences are not stupid. I think that they are much more intelligent than education programs often give them credit for. This has to change.

      ...mbg: Isn’t the burden on us, as curators and programmers, to figure out ways to make contemporary relevant with smart prompts and programming? I think that when we figure out ways to help audiences talk about contemporary art, audiences realize that they have a lot to say.

      NS: Yes, okay, maybe. But is what we do important?

      ...mbg: I don’t know. I personally don’t think that art is more important than anything else. I do think that what I do is important, but not more important than what anybody else does.

      NS: Yes, but it is different. We critically analyze. Everything we do in institutions is really education.

      Kate Green is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in art history from the University of Texas at Austin, with a dissertation project about Vito Acconci’s performative videos from the 1970s. She has written for several publications including ArtLies, ArtPapers, and Modern Painters.

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