‘I Feel Robbed’: Adrian Piper Speaks Out After the Haus Der Kunst Cancels Her Retrospective

When it comes to recounting the recent troubles of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany’s preeminent kunsthalle, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

In 2017, accusations flew that Scientologists had infiltrated the staff. Then, this past June, the institution’s acclaimed director, Okwui Enwezor, stepped down. After his departure, the museum blamed past financial mismanagement for the surprise cancellation of a significant show traveling from the Tate by pioneering American performance and video artist Joan Jonas. Enwezor took to the media to call the claim “besmirching.”

“I got the impression that I was no longer wanted,” Enwezor told German magazine Der Spiegel. “As the director of such an institution, you need not only financial but also moral support. All that was missing, even just acknowledgment, encouragement, assistance.”

Now the difficulties continue for the prestigious museum, which has no permanent collection and relies solely on major loans. Over the holidays in December, the institution confirmed that yet another forwarding-thinking female artist was being slashed from the bill, cancelling a major retrospective of Adrian Piper’s work, titled “A Synthesis of Intuitions,” that was due to travel from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (MoMA declined to comment on the Piper cancellation; the Tate did not respond to requests for comment on the Jonas cancellation.)

“I feel robbed of the opportunity to bring a different perspective into these ongoing discussions [in Germany],” Piper tells artnet News. To fill that gap, enter painter Markus Lüpertz, a mainstay of the aging German painting establishment, who is confirmed to have a large exhibition next November.

German artist Markus Lupertz. Photo: Joerg Carstensen/AFP/Getty Images.

A Troubling Trend

The programming shuffle was met with skepticism from the media—not least because Piper’s and Jonas’s exhibitions were traveling from two internationally acclaimed institutions. In the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, prominent German art critic Jörg Heiser asked how it came to be that the museum sourced funding for a show of Lüpertz’s work, considering its high financial value, and not for Piper’s or Jonas’s.

Although the institution maintains that the programming decisions were financial, Heiser expresses skepticism: “One can get the impression… that the intention here is to return to the proven figures of the art world, who are primarily German and male.”

In the article, Heiser also details a worrisome trend. Before he came to the Haus der Kunst, Bernhard Spies, the museum’s current commercial director, was the managing director of another preeminent German institution, the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn. In 2009, a year after he took that post, the Bonn museum added a Markus Lüpertz exhibition to its program—and then cancelled a large Rosemarie Trockel exhibition. According to Heiser, several sources confirm that Spies unilaterally made the decision to cancel the Trockel show.

Curiously, Robert Fleck, who was the Bundeskunsthalle’s artistic director at the time, was in the hospital—just as Enwezor was when the Jonas show was cancelled. (The Bundeskunsthalle Bonn declined to comment on the matter.)

In a statement issues to artnet News, the Haus der Kunst said Heiser’s article “is characterized by misinformation” and that “the newspaper received a counter statement from Haus der Kunst which is not yet printed.”

Okwui Enwezor, former director of the Haus der Kunst. Photo by Joerg Koch/Getty Images.

The Money Question

To be sure, the museum has had financial troubles. According to a July 2018 report by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a large group show organized by Enwezor titled “Postwar” was well over budget, costing €4.5 million (about $5.1 million) instead of an expected €1.2 million. The New York Times later reported that ticket sales were slow in Munich and that the Brooklyn Museum pulled out of its agreement to take the exhibition.

To fund the Lüpertz show, the museum turned to another source: the Foundation for Art and Culture Bonn, an organization that stages and supports exhibitions. Walter Smerling, chairman of the group, told Heiser: “If the necessary budget is known, we will address our members and ask for appropriate support.” He pledged that the organization would “do its utmost” to support the show.

But there are other issues at play. Not long after the announcement that the Joan Jonas show was canceled, chief curator Ulrich Wilmes went into retirement nine months earlier than planned. Piper tells artnet News that Wilmes wrote her saying that he was resigning because of the programming changes. The Haus der Kuinst, however, denies that Wilmes left for such reasons. Wilmes did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Installation view of "Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photographer, Martin Seck.

Installation view of “Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photographer, Martin Seck.

Bargaining an International Reputation

Some see the Haus der Kunst’s cancellations of traveling shows as a snub to partner institutions. “The situation is serious,” writes Elke Buhr, the editor-in-chief of the German art magazine Monopol. “With the rejections of the Tate and MoMA, the house has quickly duped the two most important international museums.”

“It’s not a pretty picture, I’m afraid,” Piper says of the situation. “Subservience to reactionary interests; provincialism; disengagement with the pressing intellectual, cultural, and political events that Germany, as a nation, is making such a solid effort to address and resolve; opportunistic power plays—it feels as though all the exceptional international work Okwui Enwezor did to put the Haus der Kunst on the map is being undone.”

At a time when populism and tensions over immigration are particularly high, Piper—an immigrant to Germany herself—and her investigations into racial, gender, and sexual oppression would have been an incisive addition to the conversation in southern Germany, a hotbed of support for Alternative für Deutschland, a right-wing nationalist party. It also would have complemented Piper’s acceptance by the German art establishment: in 2018, she won the Käthe Kollwitz prize, which is awarded by the Academy of Arts in Berlin.

“The Käthe Kollwitz prize was one of the greatest honors I have ever received, because it expressed not only appreciation for my work, but also a warm and moving welcome from my new home country of choice,” Piper says. “The MoMA retrospective would have been a way to give something back, to make a contribution to the very vigorous public debates about immigration, race, class, gender, anti-Semitism, and the underlying issues of selfhood and personal identity that are always taking place in Germany.”

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