AS FAR AS art hubs go, why Düsseldorf has not made its way into the global spotlight as spectacularly as New York, London, Berlin, or more recently, Hong Kong, is anyone’s guess. Then again, even this city’s name is misleading. Düsseldorf literally translates as “Village of Düssel”— Düssel being the tributary of the Rhine on which it was founded— but there is nothing village-y about the city except perhaps how picturesque it is. Otherwise, it is a heaving urban center, a poster child for the German economic miracle (and German modernity) post-World War II. Culturally speaking, Düsseldorf has everything: 26 museums, over 100 galleries, Europe’s first private media repository, the Julia Stoschek Collection, and a Gehry-designed building complex at the Media Harbour, not to mention the Orientally-inclined Langen Foundation and architecturally stunning Insel Hombroich Foundation at nearby Neuss. Then there is the Kunstakademie, for which Paul Klee, Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Nam June Paik, and sonic pioneers Kraftwerk form an illustrious list of staff and alumni, many of whom are represented in the collections of Düsseldorf ’s major cultural institutions. Armed with such a glittering arsenal of names and places, it is no surprise that Düsseldorf is now working to assert a more prominent place on the global stage.
Established in 1773, the Kunstakademie is the beating heart of Düsseldorf’s art scene. With current director Tony Cragg and professors including Rosemarie Trockel, a new generation of students is engaging with the Academy’s legacy. Adam Harrison and Philipp Rühr are, alongside Alexander Lorenz, directors of non-profit space Volker Bradtke. Named after a figure connected to the Düsseldorf art scene in the 1960s and around whom Richter orchestrated a one-night exhibition in 1966 in homage to Galerie Schmela, the reference reflects the intricacies of artist relationships/histories in Düsseldorf, orbiting an institution that has spawned some of art history’s most notable moments. There was the nineteenth-century genre of landscape painting, the Düsseldorf School, and the twentieth-century School of Photography, spearheaded by professors Bernd and Hilla Becher, to whom ex-students Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, and Düsseldorf-based photographer Andreas Gursky all owe a debt. Just steps away from the Kunstakademie is the sprawling Museum Kunstpalast, where Gursky is enjoying a major mid-career retrospective that includes a 1984 image of a white stove taken during his student days that marks a break from the Becher influence— an image Gursky was spotted gazing at inconspicuously on the day of the author’s visit.
The themes in Gursky’s show— land, labor, industrialism, trade, and globalization— could not be more fitting for Museum Kunstpalast, described by artistic director Beat Wismer as “five museums under a single roof.” With an extensive and varied collection, Museum Kunstpalast embodies the rich artistic history of Düsseldorf, pinned to a collection established in 1710 by arts patron Johann Wilhelm II and his Medici wife. In 1902, the Kunstpalast building was erected to host an exhibition of industry, trade, and art organized by an association of local artists and patrons in the style of the World’s Fair— an exhibition format responding to the globalized nature of American and European imperialism. A second exhibition took place in 1926, resulting in the Ehrenhof building complex and its magnificent domed music hall, Tonhalle, which continues to host major musical events to this day.
That the Museum Kunstpalastowes much of its physicality to trade exhibitions recalls Düsseldorf ’s geographical position within the Dorsale Européenne. On the urban corridor of industry and services within Western Europe that stretches from northern England to northern Italy, this city stands out as a trading Mecca, today hosting one-fifth of the world’s premier trade shows at Messe Düsseldorf. The current incarnation of the Museum Kunstpalast was formed in 2001 when the respective collections of the Kunstmuseum at the Ehrenhof complex and the Kunstpalast were united to form the first museum brought into a public-private partnership in Germany. Following a major two-year renovation project culminating in 2011, the museum is a historical amalgamation of public/private and local/global aspirations that manifest in all of Düsseldorf ’s major cultural institutions.
Walking through the Kunsthalle, director Gregor Jansen reflected on the institution’s intention to expand its global scope, most prominently with the first major European showing of Yin Xiuzhen (December 15- February 17, 2013). The Kunsthalle shares the same modernist Konrad Beckman-designed building, inaugurated in 1967, with the 173-year-old Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen. In 2009, the Kunstverein organized the trans-globally inclined exhibition “Düsseldorf-Dubai,” proposed by architect Markus Miessen and writer Ingo Niermann to explore the twenty-first century relationship between two global cities: Dubai, a city that modernized rapidly and subsequently fell into debt, and Düsseldorf, a city that has never quite managed to make waves supra-regionally. Indeed, though Düsseldorf does not have an art fair like nearby Cologne, nor does it enjoy the same reputation as a cultural hotspot like Berlin, this is a city with plenty of institutional and commercial support looking to expand its regional and global scope.
Across the road is the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen’s K20 Kunstsammlung am Grabbeplatz, constructed in 1986 to house an enviable collection of American and European modernism. During opening hours, a Mercedes-sponsored shuttle arrives every 20 minutes, transporting visitors to the Kunstsammlung’s newer contemporary art space, K21 Ständehaus, also the former seat of the Parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia. Currently, K21 has broken with its tradition of showing only contemporary art with an extensive Paul Klee exhibition that counts the 88 pieces acquired in 1960 by the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia that prompted the Kunstsammlung’s establishment. The museum’s most recently acquired exhibition space, the experimental rehearsal stage-cum-residency space Schmela Haus, was constructed by Dutch architect Aldo van Dyck in 1971 and inaugurated in winter 2009/2010 with the event series “Exhibiting Beuys!” Its latest project, Katarzyna Kozyra’s “Master of Puppets,” recognizes, according to artistic director Dr. Marion Ackermann, the significance of Polish artists working today.
With such active programming and expansion, the city’s funding and infrastructures have matched the drive for Düsseldorf ’s institutions to extend their reach. The Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, funded by the German state, has a EUR 2 million annual budget, part of which is being channeled into the cultural expansion of its collection. And some might say it is about time. “In many ways, Düsseldorf has a history of missed chances,” Wismer notes, discussing how the city has never quite managed to fully capitalize on its cultural pedigree. In the case of Kunstsammlung, many a major international exhibition has been organized in collaboration with the municipality.
Currently, K20 is staging a more expanded version of the Gillian Wearing mid-career retrospective, previously exhibited at the Hayward Gallery earlier in 2012 and organized in collaboration between the two institutions. Yet in these collaborations, visitor numbers are always considerably less in Düsseldorf— despite a lot of the curatorial work taking place here, Ackermann notes, citing the 2006 Martin Kippenberger retrospective at the Tate Modern that pulled in some 90,000 visitors compared to the 17,000 in Düsseldorf.
Perhaps it is this frustration that has been the ultimate driving force behind Düsseldorf ’s thriving cultural scene that is changing, dynamically. An example is the 2014 Düsseldorf Quadriennale, a private-public collaboration currently under preparation that unites the city’s art museums, exhibition spaces, and galleries under the theme “Beyond Tomorrow.” It is a theme that could not be timelier for a city riding the wave of its own momentum, with everything it needs to assert itself as a major cultural destination that matches its reputation as a trading hub.