At Eye Level

Political Futures Talks / Photo: Kunsthalle Wien 2018

At the Lenbachhaus in Munich, Matthias Mühling presides over an institution that was founded in the spirit of an enlightened middle class, a fundamental difference to the aristocratic, elitist heritage on which state museums are built. During VIENNA ART WEEK Mühling talks about the pursuit of this enlightened aim in the 21st century and about strategies of meeting the audience at eye level.

“According to the founding idea behind Lenbachhaus, works of art are viewed by the people who own them. This is the utopic, yet also practiced idea behind a civil community. Lenbachhaus is thus a museum based on the idea of democracy. That’s how we see ourselves,” says art historian and curator Matthias Mühling, director of the Munich museum since 2014. During VIENNA ART WEEK, he will discuss with Vanessa Joan Müller, dramaturge of the Kunsthalle Wien, the challenges for museums in their exhibition practices between art and society, using the Lenbachhaus as an example.

Mühling aims to show art that “challenges larger societal themes while being popular in the best sense of the word,” because, “theoretically, the institution and its audience should meet at eye level. The fact that this looks different in actual practice and that Lenbachhaus doesn’t manage to reach every individual regardless of education and origin is a reality we seek to improve daily.”

Baring contradictions
Lenbachhaus is known for significant holdings of works from Der Blaue Reiter, the Münchner Schule and Neue Sachlichkeit, as well as contemporary art. Its exhibitions, however, are topical. How to achieve this balancing act? “We have a sharp and dedicated team. This sounds trite, but we discuss and argue copiously with one another; we take our time. We conceive of projects and how they should look together with our educators and curators. We consciously work to rid ourselves of hierarchies and other conceits to avoid hiding the contradictions in our work. Only through these confrontations and the inclusion of myriad voices can we avoid gathering dust. But it’s also important that we have the support of external knowledge in order to diagnose the present: What is the state of our society? Which are the questions that move people? What are we afraid of? What needs to be defended? Only when we are clear about our position can we develop projects addressing these issues.”

Space for exchange
Recently, exhibitions running contrary to one another took place at the same time, such as Gabriele Münter and Stephan Dillemuth as well as the feminist Wikipedia-Edit-a-thon. “We want to reach rather than serve our visitors, and this inevitably means challenging them,” says Mühling. “Some appreciate Lenbachhaus exactly because we intertwine these things.” Mühling on the social and political relevance of art and the function of a museum: “Several years ago, I might have been more skeptical about the possibilities of the museum as a space for exchange and discussion. But now that our political discourse and the way we interact with one another in public have become harsher, I think that the museum and other cultural institutions can offer a safe space where one can exchange views and argue. In a time when the fear of the other is growing, institutions responsible for art must relieve this fear. We must and want to be a place where people who no longer meet can do so again.”

Text by Stefan Musil:

Stefan Musil is a Vienna-based art historian, freelance cultural journalist and music critic.

Matthias Mühling
About: born in 1968, based in Munich since 2005.
Background: studied art history, drama, film and TV, as well as political sciences in Bochum and Münster. Worked for the Hamburger Kunsthalle from 2003 to 2005. From 2005 to 2013, he headed the Collections / Exhibitions / Research department and the collection of post-1945 art at Lenbachhouse.
Highlights: numerous publications on and exhibitions of 20th- and 21st-century art, including solo shows of Monica Bonvicini, Angela Bulloch, Tom Burr, Willie Doherty, Marcel Duchamp, Maria Lassnig, Sarah Morris, Gabriele Münter, and Florine Stettheimer, as well as group exhibitions focused on video art, emotions, labor conditions, Mondrian, and De Stijl.
Current: director of the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München.

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