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The Future of the American Kunsthalle

Kunsthalles are flexible spaces designed for showing, not collecting, art. But how do they survive—and raise money—without outgrowing their model?

Fairly early in the seven-year process of designing and building the new $45 million Aspen Art Museum, director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson made a very particular request of her architect, Shigeru Ban: Please stop putting Calder sculptures in the museum renderings.

Aspen Art Museum, Grand Stair. ©MICHAEL MORAN/OTTO/COURTESY ASPEN ART MUSEUM

Aspen Art Museum, Grand Stair.

©MICHAEL MORAN/OTTO/COURTESY ASPEN ART MUSEUM

She was unlikely ever to include Calder in her exhibition program, which focuses on edgier, younger art. And, of course, Calder would never be part of the museum’s collection, for this museum has no permanent collection and no plans to form one. Rather, the Aspen Art Museum operates as a kunsthalle, German for “art hall” or “art shed,” which, as distinct from a kunstmuseum, refers to a noncollecting institution that presents art on loan from other institutions or individuals. There’s a reason the word appears in the DWB (the Deutsches Wörterbuch) but not the OED (the Oxford English Dictionary), and there is no English equivalent.

Kunsthalles throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland play an important role in defining and animating their local art scenes, with kunsthals in Norway and konsthalls in Sweden serving the same purpose. Some are nearly two centuries old.

Yet in the United States, where so many museums have been founded without much government aid but by private individuals, these noncollecting spaces are relatively rare. The Association of Art Museum Directors reports that only eleven of its 222 United States–based members run kunsthalles, including Aspen, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, the Drawing Center in New York, and the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

And over the last decade some prominent noncollecting institutions have turned away from the kunsthalle model and begun acquiring as they have grown larger in scale and ambition.

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston acquired its first work (a video by Christian Jankowski) in 2005, the year before its new waterfront building opened. It now has 142 pieces, primarily gifts. Around the same time, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, home of Armand Hammer’s Old Masters and Impressionist paintings, began collecting in its main field of contemporary art, setting up an acquisitions fund for that purpose. With an emphasis that has evolved from drawings to artworks made in Los Angeles, the collection now has about 2,000 works.

Meanwhile, PS1 in New York gained access to the mother of all modern-art collections through its merger with the Museum of Modern Art, while the New Museum has made it clear that its ultra-flexibility as an institution should extend to collecting: it can acquire works, especially commissions, when it sees fit.

It would be melodramatic to say that the American kunsthalle is in danger of extinction, but it does face challenges distinct from those faced by its collection-proud counterparts. Most urgently, how do you raise money for a museum whose mission is decidedly fluid with a collection that is conspicuously absent? How do you court trustee-collectors when you can’t offer them a home for their beloved objects? And, in the case of Aspen, how does an architect design a building without a group of artworks or artists in mind?

Mel Chin’s sculpture The Manila Palm, 1978, installed on the lawn of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. RICK GARDNER/COURTESY CONTEMPORARY ARTS MUSEUM HOUSTON

Mel Chin’s sculpture The Manila Palm, 1978, installed on the lawn of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

RICK GARDNER/COURTESY CONTEMPORARY ARTS MUSEUM HOUSTON

Elsa Longhauser, director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art, says that this freedom leads to financial challenges and creative opportunities alike. She compares kunsthalles in the larger art-world ecosystem to independent filmmaking in entertainment—an alternative artist-centered model not tied to the demands of a large Hollywood studio or “the vested interests of museum trustees.”

“A kunsthalle is a place where ideas can germinate and grow, flourish or fail,” she says. “We can be a kind of engine for cultural exploration and discovery.”

Neil Benezra, director of the collection-driven San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, agrees that this sort of experimental impulse is harder to preserve in a larger institution devoted to object stewardship. “A collection requires more resources, whether human or financial, dedicated to its oversight,” he says. “Smaller institutions that do not have collections can have a smaller budget, smaller staff, and be entirely focused on their program. There’s something quite wonderful about that.”

Lisa Melandri, director of the Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis, says she enjoys the fast-changing nature of a kunsthalle. But she adds that fundraising can prove tricky for that reason.

Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis. HELEN BINET/COURTESY CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM SAINT LOUIS

Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis.

HELEN BINET/COURTESY CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM SAINT LOUIS

“What are you asking for money for?” she says. “The goal is to offer a sort of quality and consistency of experience, but you want to do that with a content that is constantly changing. You’re asking your board to give money because they like the experience of coming to your museum, even though they are going to be constantly surprised in terms of what they’re actually seeing. That’s a pretty interesting thing, because there’s a lot of trust involved.”

Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum, says that the desire to support emerging artists directly was one reason for forming a cutting-edge collection there. Then there is the appeal to patrons. “There are many donors who don’t want to write checks but would love to buy or give you art,” she says. “Watching a museum collection being built is not just exciting for museum directors and curators, it’s exciting for donors too.”

Philbin also identifies practical advantages to having a collection, such as the ability to secure loans from other museums. “A lot of museums will tell you that’s one thing collecting gives them: leverage for borrowing from other institutions.”

Zuckerman Jacobson, however, has a firm answer to the question of whether the Aspen museum would consider starting a collection. “No, we don’t need to,” she answers. She says that reading the ARTnews top 200 collectors list this year, she identified 22 who have a home in Aspen and “another 15 to 17 [who] come here regularly. We have access to the best collections in the world and also to other great museums because our donors sit on their boards or councils too.”

Sure enough, while some kunsthalles struggle to arrange loans from major museums, Zuckerman Jacobson has secured prized works with the help of her trustees. For instance, for the current Yves Klein–meets–David Hammons exhibition, the late Aspen trustee Frances Dittmer helped secure three Klein loans, including one of his “Anthropometries,” or body stamps, from another museum she supported, the Menil Collection in Houston.

Black Lightning, an explosion event by Cai Guo-Qiang commissioned for the opening of the Aspen Art Museum, August 2, 2014. DAVID X. PRUTTING/BFANYC.COM

Black Lightning, an explosion event by Cai Guo-Qiang commissioned for the opening of the Aspen Art Museum, August 2, 2014.

DAVID X. PRUTTING/BFANYC.COM

Of course, the Aspen museum, like Aspen itself, proves to be in some ways an exceptional case. Given the extraordinary wealth and strong cultural interests of many seasonal residents who consider Aspen a second or third home, the local donor base for the museum is enviable.

Zuckerman Jacobson credits dozens of these donors with helping her raise an impressive $75 million for the new building and endowment. She adds that the kunsthalle model helped, offering a way to differentiate the museum from its competition, something she recognized soon after her 2005 arrival. “My first idea was that we could be the best mid-sized museum in America, but that’s not so sexy. Then I realized we could be the best noncollecting institution and write our mission around it,” she says.

Zuckerman Jacobson used the kunsthalle distinction to woo trustees who already had ties to major museums. “I started to make the case to some donors: you can give those museums artwork, and you can give us money,” she says.

Other museum leaders say this focus has helped the Aspen Art Museum gain wide art-world support. One sign is the number of museum directors and curators who flew to Aspen for the inauguration of the Shigeru Ban building in August.

“It’s very easy to be supportive of the Aspen Art Museum—it enhances the ecology of the art world instead of directly competing with most museums,” says Philbin. It also works out well for the Hammer, which is set to receive a sizable, drawings-rich collection from Aspen residents Larry and Susan Marx, who also have a home in Los Angeles.

“If we weren’t a collecting institution, we wouldn’t be receiving this very remarkable gift of artwork from the Marxes,” says Philbin. “And if Aspen were a collecting institution, we probably wouldn’t be getting it either, because that is their hometown museum.”

But, as it stands, the Aspen museum did get quite a munificent gift from its donors: the new building, paid for entirely with private funds. And the Shigeru Ban design reflects the adaptable nature of the institution.

The six exhibition galleries are all 14 feet tall, a requirement that Zuckerman Jacobson had in mind for consistency and “to make sure the galleries feel flexible and wide open.” One of the galleries doubles as a black box for video screenings. “That was easy—a white cube is very close to a black box,” Ban explains.

Ban also discusses the importance of designing a building that could accommodate any sort of artwork. Yes, he admits, Calder has been his favorite artist since he attended high school in Tokyo, when he checked out a book on the artist from the library and conveniently forgot to return it. But the architect adds that he wasn’t really designing the museum’s roof-deck or galleries around Calder’s work as much as using the sculptures as a point of reference. “I always put his work in my spaces just to understand scale,” he says.

Otherwise, he says, his main preoccupation was the new building’s relationship to the site—the view of the mountain shaping the experience of ascending the grand staircase, and the color and texture of local buildings (mainly brick or wood) informing his decision to wrap the building in a wood-veneer basket-weave-style structure.

Aspen Art Museum, Roof Deck Sculpture Garden.©MICHAEL MORAN/OTTO/COURTESY ASPEN ART MUSEUM

Aspen Art Museum, Roof Deck Sculpture Garden.

©MICHAEL MORAN/OTTO/COURTESY ASPEN ART MUSEUM

Ban says that designing a kunsthalle is not substantially different from designing a museum with a collection. “The biggest difference for me is whether I build storage or not.”

Dean Maltz, Ban’s United States partner, adds that the Aspen museum’s nonhierarchical approach, along with its decision to offer free admission to the public, did influence their building design in another way. It shaped their plans for visitor circulation.

“Most buildings are repositories of precious objects, so you are watched wherever you go. But here you are free to enter the museum from different locations, from top or bottom,” Maltz says. The lack of a permanent collection, he suggests, allows for a less linear viewing experience.

The notion of an open-ended building designed for an open-ended program hints at another possibility. In the absence of a permanent collection or a single compelling masterpiece to show off, the architecture of a kunsthalle can become an especially important image for and symbol of the institution itself.

This has been the case with other kunsthalles as well, such as the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati with its energetic and edgy building by Zaha Hadid, and the more subtle David Adjaye structure for the MCA Denver.

Then there’s the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, which opened its new space in 2012. Designed by London architect Farshid Moussavi, the four-story, hyperangular, stainless-steel, gem-shaped building is, if anything, a monument to dynamism.

As Moussavi told Steven Litt of the Plain Dealer, “Monuments normally try to freeze reality.” She sought the opposite. “We’ve been trying to embed time and to show that time changes,” she said. “Whether it’s the shape of the building that changes as you move around it or the reflections that change.”

Back in Aspen, Shigeru Ban expects the architecture, which essentially takes the form of a box, to be dynamic in one other way. He recognizes that his most distinctive design element, the woven screen that wraps around the building, also creates odd, leftover spaces for artist interventions.

“I wanted to prepare a provocative space for artists to do something. Even the space between the frame and the glass could be a stage for artists,” he says.

And in this way, a sense of experimentation and a focus on living artists is written into the skin as well as the guts of the building.

Jori Finkel is a writer based in Los Angeles where she covers art for the New York Times.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 80 under the title “The Future of the American Kunsthalle.”

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