The importance of being a director-curator

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Nicholas Serota and Udo Kittelmann reveal why they still want to organise exhibitions

The Tate’s director Nicholas Serota is at the helm of “Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs” (17 April-7 September), which includes Icarus, 1946. Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet; © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

For those occupying the highest positions in art institutions, spending time with the works that fill their galleries is inevitably more limited than in their earlier curatorial roles. The chance to do the job that made their name—organising groundbreaking exhibitions or displaying exemplary scholarship—become fewer as bureaucratic demands become greater.

Two directors have arguably the most demanding administrative roles in European museums: Udo Kittelmann, the director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, who oversees six museums, and Nicholas Serota, the overall director of the four Tate galleries in London, Liverpool and St Ives. Strikingly, both continue to take on lead curator roles in major shows.

Serota is at the helm of “Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs”, which he has co-curated at Tate Modern (17 April-7 September). He co-organised “Gerhard Richter: Panorama” (Oct 2011-January 2012), “Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons” (June-September 2008) at Tate Modern and “Howard Hodgkin” (June-September 2006) at Tate Britain.

Last year Kittelmann co-corganised “Martin Kippenberger: Sehr Gut | Very Good” (February-August 2013) at the Hamburger Bahnhof, the Neue Nationalgalerie’s contribution to the multi-venue exhibition “Painting Forever” (September-November 2013) and the Russian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

Working with artists

“If I didn’t continue to curate—even now that I have a job that oversees six museums—I would stop breathing,” Kittelmann says. “The strong relationship with artists gives me the energy to take on all the business that I have to do.”

Serota’s entry in Who’s Who, the annual list of notable Britons, once drily acknowledged the too-rare opportunities he has to handle art: he declared that “hanging pictures” was his hobby. “The moment when you hang a show is when you’re trying to bring out the qualities of the work and you come very close to it, and to the artist,” he says.

He argues that continuing to organise exhibitions is crucial not just for himself but also for the Tate. “I do it because it’s my passion to be involved with art and artists. I think it’s good for the institution that a director should be seen to be engaged in the practice of the institution and not simply being an administrative director.”

He says he does not want to appear to criticise directors who take a less active curatorial role. “Everyone does it in a different way, but I’ve worked for more than 30 years with artists and I think it’s helpful to the institution that I continue to do so. It’s also very good experience for me to understand what the strains are of working as a curator in a large institution.”

A hands-on approach is especially useful in any museum that regularly works with living artists, Serota says. “I do feel it’s tremendously important for Tate to have in all the directors people who really have the respect from, and really understand the practice of, living artists. All of them are institutions that, even when they’re dealing with history, must necessarily reflect the concerns of the contemporary.”

His direct involvement in the Matisse exhibition is partly circumstantial. Though he initiated the project, proposing it to the Tate’s partner venue, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, he acknowledges that “generally speaking, I don’t really have the time to pursue the depth of research that would be required on such a show”. That was left to “a very brilliant curator”, as Serota describes him, Nicholas Cullinan, who left the Tate for the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. As Cullinan had taken the research quite far before moving to New York, it then “came back to me”, Serota says.

Serota says he has no illusions about the importance of his influence. “Obviously certain doors open more easily for me than they would just for a regular curator. I’m not saying the budget is suddenly forgotten but there are things that happen—I’m aware of that.”

His authority is particularly important when it comes to senior artists ripe for full-career retrospectives, such as Richter, now 82, and Twombly, who died aged 83 in 2011. “Sometimes Tate is in competition with a lot of other institutions to make a show like the Richter, and so to have someone on the staff who has worked with Richter at different times over the past 30 years is helpful,” he says. “We would not have been able to initiate the show against competition from other institutions if I’d not been involved.”

Kittelmann says he retains the ideas “about how to work with artists and how to collaborate with them” that he had when he started out as a freelance curator in the 1980s. “Your relationship towards an artist is to be their best critic. I remember years ago, before I took over a museum, what [MoMA’s former director] Alfred Barr said: that a museum has to be as creative as an artist. The importance of a museum, and I’m sure this will be more significant than ever, will finally depend on its creativity.”

How does he choose which exhibitions to organise? “In the past it was a little different: when I started at the [Kölnischer] Kunstverein, every decision was up to me. Later on I started to discuss exhibitions and the programming with my team. But, of course, there are some projects that I appreciate more than others.”

Among them is a strikingly different exhibition for Kittelmann, which opens at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin in November, of the Czech-born 19th-century painter Gottfried Lindauer. “He went to New Zealand in the 1870s and started to paint the Maoris. I’ve been working on this project for ten years, trying to get the permission for those works to leave New Zealand for the first time.” The Lindauer project is emblematic of Kittelmann’s conviction that “the importance of museums in the future will depend more on the unknown and less on the well-known artists”.

Whether it is exploring this relatively uncharted territory or working with canonised figures such as Kippenberger, Kittelmann is aware that his role carries with it real privileges. “To administrate a museum is a tough job,” he says. “But to spend hours, days or weeks talking with artists: that really makes somebody alive, to think and to go forward with ideas.”

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